Wow: let’s talk, not about any particular book, but about the very bizarre frustration of being more or less incapable of reading (much less writing) for almost a month. Just before Christmas, I got slammed with what started as allergies, moved into a full sinus onslaught, and morphed in very wily fashion into viral wonders the likes of which I really hadn’t experienced in twenty years.
The physical illness itself was bad enough; among other things, it meant I was banned from flying back home, and spent two days in Amtrak’s tiniest sleeping car, with just my germs for company, getting back to my own bed. But the truly alarming amounts of apathy that accompanied it—the lack of desire for anything whatsoever, the complete absence of willpower or ability to perform any mental functions beyond the remedial level—may have been just as frustrating, due, I think, to the fact that the normal I with whom I was so familiar, so accustomed, had vanished entirely. And yet, there I still was, some vegetative creature whom I would have taken for a doppelgänger had I not so obviously been trapped inside of it.
This normal I is, of course, a compulsive reader; it’s simply part and parcel of who I am, and always have been, ever since I learned as a toddler to decipher letters and words. Take that characteristic away, and everyone remotely close to me will declare that what stands before them is something other than the person they know.
So that alienation from self was one thing. But I’m starting to think as well that this last bout of illness was so emotionally tough not just due to said alienation—but also to the vast amounts of disembodied conversation, normally carried on on a daily basis with other writers, or at least with their thoughts and words, that suddenly disappeared, and remained missing for so long. In being forcefully and lengthily removed from engagement with print, I was also being removed from an entire community. No wonder I felt so disoriented, and in an indescribably lonely way at that.
I’m beyond thankful that I didn’t lose any of my senses, truthfully speaking—but in the face of all of them being noticeably dampened in some way, the fear of such a loss, which has a permanent home in the far reaches of my mind, was put on alert, and even if only in attenuated fashion, reached through the dense miasma that had set up shop within and around me.
Here’s the miracle, though: even though I’ve still got some remnants of disease to kick out of my system, last night I finished a not-too-challenging book that’s been begging for the last month for my attention. I’ve found that usually, as soon as I’ve recovered from illness, I forget with amazingly quick ease what that particular form of impairment was like. Maybe it’s just that I’m not totally out of the woods yet—but the process of settling comfortably into a few of this book’s pages was noticeably low on comfort. I’m not sure how long this cold will hang around, or how long it’s going to take me to get back to the usual me—but I have a sneaking suspicion I won’t so easily consign this latest germ battle to the dustbin of memory.
It took a lengthy plane ride to do it, but I finally finished Robert Coover’s The Public Burning. I’d searched it out for years, but always decided the first editions I inevitably came across were too pricey to risk it. After all, the one short story I’d read by Coover, included in a collection of new writers during the ‘70s, did little to impress, and much to offend me, joking as it did the whole time about the possibilities of rape. But enough reliable sources had declared this huge tome a must-read cult classic, and so when I finally caught it hanging out in a pop-up bookstore in a subway tunnel—for $3.50!—I decided to go for it.
Look, I respect the experimental, or at least the so-called non-traditional; Infinite Jest, for example, has never been topped for me. But stretching out a few days’ worth of sort-of alternate history, using what might best be called a frantic style and a hell of a lot of referencing of now-forgotten government figures, becomes pretty tedious pretty quickly.
I won’t hesitate to raise a hue and cry over Americans’ lack of historical consciousness—but Coover’s book is a prime example of how to date a work and make it if not inaccessible, at least much less effective forty years down the line than it would have been to a really well-informed audience at the time of its publication, or maybe even the time in which said publication’s narrative took place–i.e., in the early 1950s. Having Richard Nixon as your protagonist, as well as some of the larger figures that surrounded him, isn’t problematic; it’s the constant references to junior senators, early film starlets, long-dead department stores, defunct products and their forgotten ad jingles,… Really, it’s not that hard to capture the absurdity of American public taste or pastimes—but trying to do so by way of the very ephemeral materials and personalities with which it’s concerned makes that message at least a little fuzzier around the edges for generations who’ve never, and for good reason, heard about half the items or flashes-in-the-pan that feature in Coover’s fictional universe.
And I’ll have to say, his deified Uncle Sam hasn’t aged well. At one point, the rootin’-tootin’ stereotype may still have been valid—but even in the paternalistically mythologized “heartland,” I don’t think such a character, even as an outsized absurdity, is believable today. My preliminary assertion is that that’s a good thing—but I also have no idea what sort of asinine idol we could replace him with, except for certain actual figures currently in power.
But I’m straying now from the general assessment of the book, which I realize took a great deal of time and creative effort to produce, and if nothing else, I can appreciate that fact. For all the work that went into it, though, you’d hope that the result would have much more staying power. Then again, the pieces that really last—and by “really,” I probably mean more than a hundred years, maybe—are few and far between. Shouldn’t I, then, be celebrating the fact that something written in the 1970s is still being referenced, much less read, even if only in tiny circles, especially in an age of disposable information and barely-there attention spans?
I suppose so. But if I’ve learned one thing from history, it’s that most uniquely identifiable things and people, if not the events in which they took part, will pass from the collective memory. You may have your own feelings about that fact, but as I’ve probably mentioned before, the realization of our fleeting nature is sort of comforting to me. Maybe in the end what I find so frustrating, then, about Coover’s approach to The Public Burning is what seems like his determined attempt to fight against that evanescence of all (or most) things. I’d like to know, forty years after this dense piece of not-quite-historical fiction came out, what the author thinks about it now, and whether or not he’s still struggling to maintain his insistent grip on the fugitive things of this world.
I should sit down and ponder sometime why it is that I’ll occasionally respond to grocery-store cashiers’ casual questions as if I believe in their pretense of interest. When the bearded youth asked me last week what I’d been doing with my day, it might have been his earnest look– someone so obviously as-yet unjaded by life couldn’t be totally insincere, after all– that prompted me to admit, “Finance,” followed by the qualification (I have to protect my liberal-arts cred, after all) that I never in the most implausible scenarios I’d imagined for my life ever thought I’d be saying that. Turns out (surprise, surprise) we were both frustrated writers, and I went on my way as the wordsmith of Trader Joe’s asked the next customer the same question.
But enough with the evidence of failed human connection; let’s talk this crazy numbers stuff I confessed to have been dabbling in. Much as I’ve learned about– and enjoyed– budgeting and non-profit financial management over the past few months, my eyes still assume they should glaze over when faced with a new quantitative concept or piece of loosely-defined jargon (“best practices,” anyone?) that could almost mean anything you’d like it to mean. I’m not an entirely stupid person, but even with all my fancy education and newfound fascination, this stuff can be simultaneously tricky and tedious. Hence, based solely on the technical ideas involved, I’m unsurprised that history has been filled with banking scandals, spectacular economic crashes, and difficulty in regulating the whole mess– and that’s without taking into consideration a lamentable human baseline of greed and childish competition.
Currently, I’m making my mostly comfortable way through a standard on institutional investment– and I’ve been pretty pleased with how straightforwardly written and clearheaded it’s been. But then I came across this gem: “Combining the tendency of a high risk premium to mean revert with the observation that the equity risk premium seems to decline secularly, justifies an assumption of U.S. equity returns of 6 percent real with standard deviation of 20 percent.”* Say what? Right: it sounds like something that came right out of the artificially constructed language in Václav Havel’s The Memorandum, and we could all get in a few chuckles about this clumsy chunk in general. But here’s what I zeroed in on: “the equity risk premium declin[ing] secularly.” Yeah, yeah, Investopedia‘s keyed me in to the fact that “secular” here just indicates “a long-term time frame,” so my snarky grin had to disappear in the face of legitimate word usage.** But student of culture and religion that I am, this phrase is loaded with rich and telling possibilities – as in, when dealing with wily securities, the best form of hedging might be prayer– or a reconsideration of just what sorts of benefits the transcendent could offer, especially upon realizing that the systems we’ve created and kid ourselves are “natural” are just as prone to error and irrationality as are the humans who crafted them.
In short, I’m having all sorts of dorkily speculative fun in moving this specialized terminology across disciplinary boundaries– and I haven’t even gotten around yet to toying with Adam Smith’s oft-cited and ofter-misunderstood concept of the “invisible hand.” You can be certain, though, that that appendage will be just as eager to wreak ill-informed havoc in my imaginary economic universe as some of its extreme fans are still doing in our current one. To asset allocation, then! Who knew it could be so creatively philosophical?
* David F. Swensen, Pioneering Portfolio Management: An Unconventional Approach to Institutional Investment (New York: Free Press, 2009), 111. In case you’re wondering, the chapter in which this gets thrown down deals with asset allocation.
** Massive props to this website, which has allowed me to understand a whole welter of concepts without driving my mentor to check himself into an asylum. I’m still going to do some etymological investigation of how this particular usage came about; why use “secular” to deal with longer terms, instead of “sacred” or “immortal”? You’d think something of a secular nature would have to do with the very non-eternal– and hence, shorter-term– reality of buying and selling and borrowing.
Take heed, fair readers: in the realm of unexpected traces left in a book by previous handlers, owners, borrowers, and the like, I’ve come across a rare bit of treasure: a visible link to someone at least (or most likely) connected to the person who opened up the pages before I got my hands on them.
Yes, actual photographs!!*
I had to refrain from posting immediately about this magnificent find; the pictures fell out of a volume I was sending someone as a gift– and I didn’t want to destroy the surprise of either the photos (which I replaced, so that she, too, could marvel) or the knowledge that she’d soon be the owner of a copy of Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography. With confirmation that the package arrived, I can now officially celebrate the pretty-much-perfect insertion of unintentionally goofy pictures into an ironic-nostalgic take on an old subgenre of kiddie lit.
Devouring those artless adventures in elementary school, I could only have dreamed of coming across a mysterious clue as significant as this pair of snapshots. Had the possibility been realized, I undoubtedly would have viewed it as evidence of some low-grade variety of transcendence attempting to communicate something very interesting, maybe even important, to yours truly. Decades later, I can’t imagine there being anything world-historical about these human-canine portraits falling into my lap– but I’m still curious about why the shots were taken. Was it the very owner of NPH who, featured in the picture, either set up a camera on automatic timer, or had someone else take these photographs– and if so, why? For whom? Also, where did that blanket come from, and did it ever induce seizures in anyone who looked at it in the wrong way? Did this person successfully complete one version of Mr. Harris’ autobiography, and if so, was it a satisfying end to the narrative arc that had been occurring up until then?
And there you have it: suddenly, I’ve been sucked into a very mundane version of escapism, losing myself to unanswerables in lieu of, say, the evening study round I should have started an hour ago. Now, if a Polaroid of Putin and his dog shows up in today’s chapter in my Russian text, I’ll definitely take that as a reasonable excuse to stop my review of the conditional– but the adventurous path that would take me on would undoubtedly be much darker than the apple-pie images I’ve been discussing. In real life, I would definitely choose that safer, if less interesting, of the two options.
* With the face of the human, at least, blurred to protect identity. I’m hopefully correct in assuming the dog won’t mind being given a negligible amount of exposure; if that’s not the case, I hereby humbly beg for forgiveness.
Overheard on my volunteer shift in the bookstore the other day: one member of a couple declaring very seriously to the other, as the duo browsed the $5 bestseller table, “I’m just opposed to time travel in general, you know?” I was unable to crane my head around the computer without it becoming obvious I was eavesdropping, so I didn’t hear the rest of the conversation– but it did go on, giving the impression that there was much of urgency to discuss, in the way of real-world possibilities (and their attendant merits, ethical dilemmas, and so forth) of leapfrogging from one era to another.
Sure, this topic has provided grist for literature and film both great and inane; I’ll admit to finding the first Bill and Ted movie, well, excellent, maybe because it could really qualify for membership in both of those categories at the same time. And why not discuss time travel seriously; not too long ago, space tourism was inconceivable, and now we’ve got bazillionaires chomping at the bit to spend a few hours in oxygen- and gravity-free zones, rather than throw down some of that cash on, say, the alleviation of global poverty or at least something that won’t pollute the atmosphere with a sloshing tank of rocket fuel and other detritus.
But I digress. Maybe confronting supposedly impossible scenarios, such as time travel, could act as a training ground for development in mature civil discourse. After all, getting shouted down and insulted by your opponent regarding the ethics of popping into your parents’ teenage years is far less likely than being (emotionally, at least) mauled by an ideologue at a town hall meeting. I’m certainly not going to base a curriculum in civics on the possibility, but maybe because there’s less at stake in digging into far-fetched hypotheticals, people are more willing to entertain each other’s conflicting views and arguments– and if they realize they can get along even in a heated debate about worm holes or the risk of retro- (or would it be pro-, here?) actively annulling your own existence, they could take it to a real-world level and be willing to work together to confront anything from potholes to prison reform.
That rosy little pipe dream is probably akin to the faith I want to have in kids– and adults– who really took Harry Potter, especially volume 5, to heart. If those readers can remember that particular volume’s beautiful elucidation of how ideology works– and the entire series’ wrangling with the noblest way to confront very difficult, very terrifying situations, and apply it to their own world, I’m willing to refrain from throwing in the towel just yet. And if an examination of magical worlds can do that for us, well, so, too, can a variety of other apparently frivolous conversations. Carry on, then, with your bookstore conversation, sci-fi couple. Carry on.
Well, friends, no one was reading in my carriage on the way home today; any ability to concentrate on anything at all was shot completely to hell by two meatheads shouting threats and insults at each other. The scene came complete with stereotypical bad-cinema moves such as one oaf turning to his presumed audience (i.e., the rest of the car) and making his case to us, then standing up and removing his outerwear and looming in simian fashion over his seated foe, while the latter challenged his aggressor to go ahead and make good on his promises– an outcome which, of course, never happened, and which consequently meant the rest of us were trapped listening to this inane exchange until they both got off and actually started chest-bumping and pushing each other along the platform as we were finally able to leave them behind.
It was the second day in a row that I had to be vigilant about the people around me; a completely different sort of mentally disturbed individual paced up and down my car last night, muttering to herself and getting every now and then in the face of some poor passenger she decided she didn’t like. In that instance, at least pretending to be engrossed in my magazine seemed like a good protective move, and as long as this lost soul was on the other side of the carriage, I could actually get in a paragraph or two.
My increased train-riding over the past year has made especially evident some alternate uses of reading. In this last instance, it proved to be a sort of defensive shield. Less justifiable– and (hence?) more shameful– are those times when I just don’t want to deal with one more panhandler. Although everyone involved can probably see through the ruse, being visibly sunk into a book makes it seem (we all tell ourselves) as if you’re so in the zone that you just didn’t notice the person begging for change or making a public plea for assistance in the aisle. My own worst bout of comeuppance concerning this tactic came about a year ago; although I really had been fixated on a novel, I was well aware of the guy who’d just gotten up and said, “I don’t mean to scare anyone.” In spite of my own wishes that I weren’t so jaded, that I could believe that each person’s pleas were honest and legitimate and valuable, and that I could– and more importantly, were willing to– give something to every needy person who crossed my path every day– in spite of all that rolling guiltily around inside me, I didn’t look up, and tried to focus on the doings of fictional characters as well as possible, while the story of the living person in front of me continued to be told. And when we arrived at my station and I headed out the door, I happened to glance at the man who had reached a point where he saw no choice but to publicly set his own dignity aside– and who, I finally allowed myself to see, was asking for money in order to bandage the largest, most horror-film-esque gaping and suppurating wounds I’ve ever witnessed on a living being.
I still haven’t been able to rid myself of the painful awareness of what some Southern religionists I know would call being convicted of one’s own sin– or the regressive spiral of guilt that continues to accuse my inhumanity vis-à-vis everyone in need (whether a so-called “worthy victim” or not) to whom I haven’t given what I’ve got when asked for it. Every now and then, it makes taking up a bound volume of print feel like the bad sort of privilege– an easy method of dismissing harsh realities from which most people on this planet simply can’t walk away. Handing a homeless person a book is so far from making any meaningful difference in a horrifying structural situation, such a gesture is more or less an insult. But I really do wish those two lunks on the train today had been more able and willing to tune out the world– or at least each other– with some sort of reading material of their choice. In following the adventures and travails of some disembodied character, they might have felt less need to act out flawed attempts at heroism for themselves.
It’s the kind of thing you (or I, at least) hope will happen when buried in a book in public: some fellow reader sees the text in your hand (or on the table, your lap, etc., etc.) and feels enough of a connection or surge of curiosity to take a chance and say a few words to you. Before today, it had happened twice in my life that I could remember, totaling a 50% goodness ratio.
Instance 1 (the bad) taught me a lesson: never make it obvious in a public place that you’re studying biblical Hebrew. Because that one fundamentalist nut in the vicinity will somehow hone in on you and assume you share the same ideals. Even though you can’t see the flames painted on the back of his jean jacket, and the question about where the person viewing them thinks s/he will spend eternity,* his Chester Molester glasses tell you all you need to know, regarding the sort of conversation that’s about to be foisted upon you. And you, of course, not enjoying fights about metaphysics or faulty logic or anything else, really, will find yourself losing a battle against a member of the Pentecostal inquisition. In this case, in a hostel in Boston.
Instance 2 (the good): deciding it was time to cede my table to someone else in the crowded café where I’d been reading Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics, I packed my bag and made ready to leave. But before I’d stepped away, a representative from a neighboring tableful of Russians asked what I was reading, and whether it was as fascinating as its cover and title made it appear. I granted it was interesting, and we had a short conversation about reading and physics, and then I left, feeling a tiny bit more connected to my neighborhood.
I’m glad to report that my train ride home today provided me with a third case of someone stepping briefly into my life, thanks to a text– and that this chance meeting upped the goodness ratio of those types of encounters. Pulling into a station, an elderly gentleman caught my eye, saying in reference to the latest issue of The New Yorker I was reading, “It’s quite a cover this week, isn’t it?” He had to have recognized the particular font and/or one of the cartoons from the publication, as I had the magazine folded in a way that didn’t make it obvious to most people what I was reading. But we smiled at each other in recognition of our common enjoyment of a particular periodical, and parted ways as he got off the train. Those few seconds were a far cry from a new friendship– but I’ll take it, by golly. I’ll take it.
* This self-made design was only revealed to me after the crusader finally walked away in disgust. It was also what told the surly Irishman at the check-in desk that the argument he was witnessing was not, in fact, a domestic dispute, as he’d originally assumed was the case.