Category Archives: Reading–Politics

Libraries of the self: Or, are print books more ephemeral than e-books, and is it a bad thing if they are?

There’s a remarkable consistency in the way that readers write about their libraries.  Tropes of friendship, solace, and refuge abound, as well as metaphors of journey and travel that tell the tale of intellectual sojourn that books can occasion and recall for their readers.  Though I cannot recall the details of their first readings, I still treasure my Princeton paperback editions of the work of Soren Kierkegaard, the now ratty Vintage-Random House versions of Faulkner with their stark

Man made of books

white on black covers and yellowing pages,  my tattered and now broken copies of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and Other Poems, and his Selected Essays, held together by a rubber band, the band itself now so old it threatens to crumble into dust.  I keep these books now, not so much because of the information they contain.  Even the notes I’ve written in them aren’t all that entertaining and hold only a little nostalgic value:  I was a much more earnest reader as a younger person, but also duller, less informed, and more predictable, at least to my 51 year old eyes.  Still, these books are the talismans of a journey, and I keep them as stones set up to my memory of that journey, of the intellectual and imaginative places I’ve come to inhabit and the doorways I passed through to get here.  In that sense, a library represents both time passages and the attendant loss as much or more than they represent the knowledge and the information that has been gained.

Ariel Dorfman has a very nice meditation on the relationship between his library and his intellectual, political, and material journey in the September 23rd edition of the Chronicle Review.  In it Dorfman tells the story of his lost library, a library that he had to leave behind in Chile at the beginning of his exile.  The library was partially destroyed in a flood during his absence, and then partially recovered again when he returned to Chile in 1990.  As with many memoirs of reading, Dorfman understands the library as a symbol of the self.

Those books, full of scribbled notes in the margins, had been my one luxury in Chile, companions of my intellectual voyages, my best friends in the world. During democratic times, before the military takeover, I had poured any disposable income into that library, augmenting it with hundreds of volumes my doting parents acquired for me. It was a collection that overflowed in every impossible direction, piling up even in the bathroom and the kitchen.

It was a daily comfort, in the midst of our dispossession in exile, to imagine that cosmic biblioteca back home, gathering nothing more lethal than dust. That was my true self, my better self, that was the life of reading and writing I aspired to, the space where I had been at my most creative, penning a prize-winning novel, many short stories, innumerable articles and poems and analyses, in spite of my own doubts as to whether literature had any place at all in a revolution where reality itself was more challenging than my wildest imaginings. To pack the books away once we fled from the country would have been to acknowledge our wandering as everlasting. Even buying a book was proof that we intended to stay away long enough to begin a new library.

But, of course, Dorfman did begin a new library in his many years of exile, and his Chilean library was altered not only by the natural disaster of the flood, but also by the human transience whereby Dorfman himself changed and so changed his relationship with his books.  The changing shape of Dorfman’s library becomes an image of historical and personal change that must finally be embraced since it is unavoidable.

Six months later I had left Chile again, this time of my own free will, this time for good. I have puzzled often how I could have spent 17 years trying to go back and then, when I did indeed return, I forced myself to leave. It is still not clear to me if it was the country itself that had changed too much or if I was the one who had been so drastically altered by my exile that I no longer fit in, but whatever the cause, it left me forever divided, aware that my search for purity, simplicity, one country and one language and one set of allegiances was no longer possible.

It also left me with two libraries: the one I had rescued back home and the one that I have built outside Chile over the years and that is already so large that not one more new book fits in the shelves. I have had to start giving hundreds of books away and boxing many others in order to donate them to Duke University, where I teach. But no matter how many I get rid of, it does not look likely that there will ever be space to bring my whole Chilean library over.

And yet, I had already lost it once when I left my country and then regained half when that phone call came in 1982, and rescued what was left yet again in 1990 and can dream therefore that perhaps, one day, I will unite some books from Santiago with the thousands of books bought during my long exile. I can only hope and dream that before I die, a day will come when I will look up from the desk where I write these words, and my whole library, from here and there, from outside and inside Chile, will greet me, I can only hope and dream and pray that I will not remain divided forever.

It’s possible, of course, to lament our losses, and I suppose in some sense the vision of a library of the self is a utopian dream of resurrection wherein all our books, all the intellectual and imaginative doorways that we’ve passed through, will be gathered together in a room without loss.  But I also sense in Dorfman’s essay a sense that loss and fragility is one part of the meaningfulness of his books and his library.  I know that in some sense I love my books because they are old and fragile, or they will become that way.  They are treasured not only for the information they contain, but for the remembered self to which they testify.

I started this post thinking I would focus on the ways we sometimes talk about the ephemera of electronic digital texts.  There is something to that, and we’ve discussed that some over at my other group blog on the Digital Humanities.  At the same time, there is another sense in which e-texts are not ephemeral enough.  They do not grow old, they are always the same, they cannot show me the self I’ve become because that implies a history that e-texts do not embody.  While looking at my aging and increasingly dusty library, I feel them as a mirror to the person I’ve become.  Looking at my e-books stored on my iPad I see…..texts.  Do they mirror me?  Perhaps in a way, but they do not embody my memories.

If I give a book away to  a student, I always miss it with a certain imaginative ache, knowing that what was once mine is now gone and won’t be retrieved.  Somehow I’ve given that student something of my self, and so I don’t give away books lightly or easily.  If I give a student a gift card for iTunes….well, perhaps this requires no explanation.  And if I delete a book from my iBooks library I can retrieve it any time I want, until the eschaton, one imagines, or at least as long as my iTunes account exists.

Listening as Reading

Some more about audiobooks today.

I still remember my shock and dismay a couple of years ago when I clicked on to the New York Times book page and found an advertisement of much a younger, more handsome and vaguely Mediterranean-looking young man who oozed sex appeal as he looked out at me from the screen with headphones on his ears.

“Why Read?” asked the caption.

Surely this was the demise of Western Civilization as we knew it, to say nothing of being a poor marketing strategy for a newspaper industry increasingly casting about in vain for new readers.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that audiobooks have developed a generally sexy and sophisticated cache for literary types that other shorthand ways to literature typically lack. As an English professor, I’ve been intrigued lately that a number of colleagues around and about have told me they listen to audiobooks to “keep up on their reading.” To some degree I’ve always imagined this as a slightly more sophisticated version of “I never read the book, but I watched the movie,” which has itself been about on a par with reading Sparknotes.

However, as I mentioned in yesterday’s post, another colleague recently took issue with my general despairing sense that the reading of literature, at least, is on the decline, no matter the degree to which students may be now reading interactively on the web. “Yes,” she said, “but what about audiobooks?” She went on to cite the growth in sales over the past few years as evidence that interest in literature may not be waning after all.

My immediate response is a little bit like that of Scott Esposito over at Conversational reading. In a post a couple of years ago Scott responded to an advocate of audiobooks with the following:

Sorry Jim, but when you listen to a book on your iPod, you are no more reading that book than you are reading a baseball game when you listened to Vin Scully do play-by-play for the Dodgers.

It gets worse:

[Quoting Jim] But audio books, once seen as a kind of oral CliffsNotes for reading lightweights, have seduced members of a literate but busy crowd by allowing them to read while doing something else.

Well, if you’re doing something else then you’re not really reading, now are you? Listen Jim, and all other audiobookphiles out there: If I can barely wrap my little mind around Vollmann while I’m holding the book right before my face and re-reading each sentence 5 times each, how in the hell am I going to understand it if some nitwit is reading it to me while I’m brewing a cappuchino on my at-home Krups unit?

It’s not reading. It’s pretending that you give a damn about books when you really care so little about them that you’ll try to process them at the same time you’re scraping Pookie’s dog craps up off the sidewalk.

I have to grin because Scott is usually so much more polite. Nevertheless, I cite Scott at length because viscerally, in the deepest reaches of my id, I am completely with him and he said it better than I could anyway.

However, it’s worth pausing over the question of audiobooks a little further. I don’t agree with one of Scott’s respondents over at if:book, who describes listening to audiobooks as a kind of reading. But it is an experience related to reading, and so it’s probably worth parsing what kind of experience audiobooks actually provide and how that experience fits in with our understanding of what reading really is.

As I’ve said a couple of times, I think we lose sight of distinctions by having only one word, “reading,” that covers a host of activities. I don’t buy the notion that listening can be understood as the same activity as reading, though the if:book blog rightly points out the significance of audiobooks to the visually impaired. Indeed, one of my own colleagues has a visual disability and relies on audiobooks and other audio versions of printed texts to do his work. Even beyond these understandable exceptions, however, Scott’s definition of reading above privileges a particular model of deep reading that, in actual fact, is relatively recent in book history.

Indeed, going back to the beginnings of writing and reading, what we find is that very few people read books at all. Most people listened to books/scrolls/papyri being read. TheChrist reading in the synagogue temple reader and the town crier are the original of audiobooks and podcasts. In ancient Palestine, for instance, it’s estimated that in even so bibliocentric a culture as that of the Jewish people only 5 to 15% of the population could read at all, and the reading that went on often did not occur in deep intensive reading like that which Scott and I imagine when we think about what reading really is. Instead, much of the experience of reading was through ritual occasions in which scriptures would be read aloud as a part of worship. This is why biblical writers persistently call on people to “Hear the Word.” This model of reading persists in Jewish and Christian worship today, even when large numbers of the religious population are thoroughly literate. See Issachar Ryback’s “In Shul” for an interesting image from the history of Judaism.

Indeed, in the history of writing and reading, listening to reading is more the norm than not if we merely count passing centuries. It wasn’t until the aftermath of the Reformation that the model for receiving texts became predominantly focused on the individuals intense and silent engagement with the written word of the book. In this sense, we might say that the Hebrews of antiquity weren’t bibliocentric so much as logocentric—word-centered but not necessarily book-centered.

Along these lines, the model of intense engagement—what scholars of book history call “intensive reading”—is only one historical model of how reading should occur. Many scholars in the early modern period used “book wheels” in order to have several books open in front book wheelof them at the same time. This is not exactly the same thing as multi-tasking that Scott abhors in his post, and it’s not exactly internet hypertexting, but it is clearly not the singular absorption in a text that we’ve come to associate with the word “reading.” “Reading” is not just the all-encompassing absorption that I’ve come to treasure and long for in great novels and poems, or even in great and well-written arguments. Indeed, I judge books by whether they can provide this kind of experience. Nevertheless, “Reading” is many things.

But to recognize this is not exactly the same thing as saying “so what” to the slow ascendancy of audiobooks, and the sense that books, if they are to be read at all, will be read as part of a great multi-tasking universe that we now must live in. Instead, I think we need to ask what good things have been gained by the forms of intensive reading that Scott and I and others in the cult of book lovers have come to affirm as the highest form of reading. What is lost or missing if a person or a culture becomes incapable of participating in this kind of reading.

By the same token, we should ask what kinds of things are gained by audiobooks as a form of experience, even if I don’t want to call it a form of reading. I’ve spent some time recently browsing around Librivox.org, which I’ll probably blog about more extensively in a future post. It’s fair to say that a lot of it turns absolutely wonderful literature into mush, the equivalent of listening to your eight-year-old niece play Beethoven on the violin. On the other hand, it’s fair to say that some few of the readers on that service bring poetry alive for me in a way quite different than absorption in silence with the printed page. As I suggested the other day, I found Justin Brett’s renditions of Jabberwocky and Dover Beach, poems I mostly skim over when finding them in a book or on the web, absolutely thrilling, and I wanted to listen to everything I could possibly find that he had read.

This raises a host of interesting questions for a later day. What is “literature.” Is it somehow the thing on the page, or is it more like music, something that exists independently of its graphic representation with pen and ink (or pixel and screen). What is critical thinking and reading? I found myself thrilled by Brett’s reading, but frustrated that I couldn’t easily and in a single glance see how lines and stanzas fit together. I was, in some very real sense, at the mercy of the reader, no matter how much I loved his reading.

This raises necessary questions about the relationship between reader and listener. Could we tolerate a culture in which, like the ancient Greeks and Hebrews, reading is for the elite few while the rest of us listen or try to listen. At the mercy and good will of the literate elite—to say nothing of their abilities and deficiencies as oral interpreters of the works at hand.

More later

Miscellany: More Literary Politics, Teleread.org, arbiters of celebrity, Technomyth 101

Stephen King, Kingmaker?

The literary sweepstakes continue. News reports tell us that Stephen King has thrown his very considerable weight behind Obama.

This may be a good thing. Barack’s rather weighty reading list, his endorsement by His Weirdness Michael Chabon and by Her Highness Oprah Winfrey, and his rather stunning eloquence have left him in distinct danger of not being pegged as a “regular guy.”

Given that I doubt Obama is going to be out stomping through a field with a 12 gauge in his hand, it’s probably a good thing that a literary celebrity known for mayhem, murder and mystery has his back. Stephen King is the everyman’s literary favorite, and Obama doesn’t even have to read him. (Personal aside: I think King is one of the most interesting and bizarre self-reflexive writers on the pathologies of writing and reading. I hope to have a chapter on him in the book I am currently fantasizing about).

Teleread makes me a star.

Teleread.org’s David Rothman has proven once again why he is one of the smartest people out there writing about the current state of digital books and literature. Primarily because he gave my blog about the pathologization of solitude and its effect on reading a big plug. My blog stats—not that I pay ANY attention to them–nearly doubled. Nice to get in to double figures (heh, heh).

Seriously though, there are literally thousands of sites out there devoted to books and reading in one way or another, many of them very good. So I have been pretty choosey about what I put on my blogroll—only the things about books and reading I actually bother to read regularly set alongside a few close friends who write about various and sundry. Teleread is, I think, one of the best sites for trying to think through—and listen to others think through—the issues and news surrounding e-books and digital literacy generally. There seems to be a sensible assumption that reading books online is not going away, but the site isn’t clogged with folks I sometimes derisively call digital utopians. There’s an effort to be self-critical, and comments that question ruling assumptions about digital books or internet culture generally are welcome. It’s very much worth a look.

Techno myths go to school.

In his most recent blog, Mark Bauerlein calls attention to the huge gap between the mythology that kids can now basically teach themselves on the internet and the actual facts about kids ability to judge and assimilate online materials. He cites an ETS study that gives a rather grim picture of students ability to sort through the waves of things they find on the net:

The report concluded: “Few test takers demonstrated key ICT literacy skills” (ICT is short for Information and Communications Technology). Only 35 percent of the subjects could narrow an overly broad search properly, and only 40 percent of them chose the right terms to tailor a search effectively. In constructing a slide presentation, only 12 percent of them stuck to relevant information.

Among some other things in the report that Bauerlein doesn’t cite is the following:

When asked to evaluate a set of
Web sites for objectivity, authority and timeliness . . .

– 52% judged the objectivity of the sites correctly
– 65% judged the authority of the sites correctly
– 72% judged the timeliness of the site correctly
– Overall, only 49% of test-takers identified the one
website that met all criteria

Even allowing for some margin of error, it still seems we’re a good ways away from the possibility of doing away with teachers entirely. And of course, this says very little about the ability of students to interpret and assimilate such materials into writing of their own—something that the testimony of writing in intro composition classes suggests might be very dismal indeed.

This speaks again to my general sense that the argument offered by digital utopians that people are reading just as much as ever, they’re just reading on the web, isn’t really an argument, it’s a platitude. We need to be thinking about what students are reading, how they are reading it, in what contexts, and how they put that reading to use. We would then be in a better place to judge what we are gaining and losing by the fact that students are no longer reading or wanting to read traditional long form texts.

Michael Chabon Swings Election for Obama!!!!!

Ok, maybe not. Still, Obama has the literary vote all but wrapped up, at least in San Francisco, or at least maybe in the Creative Writing program at Berkeley. Or maybe at least with students hoping to get an A on some other basis than their sparkling prose. I’m sure, however, that the .0000000001% of the electorate who have even heard of Chabon will be impressed with this endorsement.

Chabon’s endorsement–already much pondered over by the press–mainly in their saying, “Who is this guy anyway?” –can be viewed below.

Seriously, though, Chabon is a very good writer and I think his Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is one of the best novels of the past decade. Whatever that counts for as a literary endorsement.

Miscellany: Books as Plastic Art; Leslie Fiedler; Clinton’s Campaign Against Hope.

Book Sculpture

Many thanks to Scott Esposito at Conversational Reading for pointing me toward this really fascinating page on books as art objects.

A favorite image from the page:

2057160036_ec4b4ef2ba.jpg

I’ve seen a variety of things like this in recent years, and I suspect to some degree that seeing the book as a form of art is tied to a sense of its demise. As things die, they become works of art, perhaps? The Freudians have already covered this, I’m sure. In the infancy of books, of course, books were also thought of as treasurers to be handled like works of art or other revered objects. Books in general were far too expensive for the masses to obtain, and as a general rule this continued for a very long time. Owning books, as much as reading them, signified your cultural and class superiority. This all changed gradually over centuries after Gutenberg, but changed with a vengeance with the invention of the paperback.

Perhaps now that television and the internet have taken on most of the cultural purposes of the paperback and the newspaper—cheap entertainment and ready information for the masses—books are again left to become objects of art, treasures indulged in primarily by a small coterie of collectors. Strikes me as depressing, just a bit, but I still love these photos.

Leslie Fiedler. Who?

I couldn’t help but notice Scott’s post on Friday noted a new book by the late Leslie Fiedler, whom Scott admits he didn’t know. Alas, how far the mighty have fallen. I used to want to be Leslie Fiedler. He made cultural criticism seem romantic. Now cultural criticism has all the romance of oral dentistry or working at Chic-Fil-a. (Does anyone know why they spell it this way?)

Seriously though, Fiedler was one of the few critics I’ve ever known whose work aspired to and in some instances could be called literary. This despite the much vaunted declarations that criticism and theory were literary genres, these made by literary theorists who could not write. Roland Barthes, who I think came up with the idea, also comes close to this ideal in some of his work. But declaration is not achievement. Fiedler and people like Barthes—Fiedler more than Barthes–are to be thanked for showing us that cultural criticism could actually care about and love language, that how it communicates can mesh with what it does communicate.

Clintons continue attack on literature…er…Obama.

By now, I guess, everyone has heard that Bill Clinton and hip-mate Hillary Clinton—or is it the other way around—got in trouble for deriding Obama as a purveyor of fairy-tales and fantasy. In some future post I think I’ll take up the idea that the Clintons who once represented the hopeful face of baby-boomerism, now represent the craggy and toothless grin of what to expect as baby-boomers start using canes and walkers. “No hope for you, people, you silly and naïve young whippersnappers.” My general sense is that the Clinton approach demonstrates again and again that they are part of the system, so broken by it that they have to replicate it, like dogs licking the hands of an abusive master. Trouble is they may be right. Systems persist for a good reason, the gradually wear down the hopes of those who would change them and they are impervious to appeals from those outside their own logic. The smart money still goes with Clinton, but for the moment I feel like I’m still young enough to hope.

But my real issue with all this is the Clinton’s perfidious campaign against the imagination and literature. (Beware those who use the term “perfidious” wantonly). As I pointed out in earlier posts, Clinton has all the literary imagination of a manual on how to fix my furnace. Hillary works too hard to have time for literature. Now they are using a perfectly wonderful and culturally important literary form as a derogatory epithet. As Vladimir Propp could tell them, fairy tales make us what we are.

Do those of us who are reading for our lives, an increasingly aggrieved and marginalized minority who must struggle against the glass ceiling of…well, something I’m sure…set in place by the billions of non-readers in the world, really need the Clintons piling on with their anti-literary epithets?

I think enough is enough. We need to stand up against unthinking and derogatory stereotypes of reading culture.

READERS OF THE WORLD UNITE!

Or something.

Barack Obama, Black Lothario?

In the final 24 hour run-up to Hillary Clinton’s victory this evening, seduction was in the air. Literally, actually, as a word used in repeated reference to Barack Obama by Clinton supporters interviewed in the street. I somehow remember Hillary herself or someone from her campaign using the word, but it may be a false memory. I can’t find a reference anywhere on the net, in any case. This a different kind of jab at Obama’s eloquence than those I’ve noted over the past couple of days, but one still freighted with gender and the politics and history of race in the United States.

Just out of curiosity, I googled “Barack Obama” and various versions of the word “seduce.” Seduction, Seducer, Seduced. I came up with about 70,000 instances. Discount the ubiquitous advertisements for sex aids and dating services and you’ve still got a healthy discourse of Barack Obama, the seducer of our political souls.

According to one news service, “Obama woos women,” and describes Obama as “not just attracting scores of young voters, but also seducing women and independents ahead of Tuesday’s primary.” A blogger on the Huffington Post tells us the that “The mere idea of someone who can write (and presumably therefore think) in a complex yet compelling fashion is almost irresistibly seductive” .

Main stream news outlets use the term, and the discourse extends overseas. The Brits especially seem a bit dismayed by Obama’s overly sexualized politics. The Economist says that at a typical campaign rally “Mr Obama eventually moseys onto the stage and starts massaging the crowd with his seductive baritone.” Barack Obama, political call boy.

(And “moseys”? Do the Brits even know what “mosey” means? Having grown up in Oklahoma where people really do mosey, I can testify that Obama does not do mosey. My general sense is that Kenyans, Hawaiians, and Indonesians–the cultures which Obama grew up around–don’t do “mosey.” Chicago? I have my doubts.)

Even French philsopher Bernard-Henri Levy has gotten in on the act saying that Obama has decided” to stop playing on guilt and play on seduction instead”.

What role is the representation of language, especially as it plays out in relationship to race and gender, serving in this campaign. The emphasis on Obama as a seducer makes his eloquence—his greatest political asset—a net negative. The seducer, almost always a man, uses language to deceive others, almost always vulnerable women, for his own nefarious ends. The image of Obama as seducer in some ways “hypermasculinizes” his use of language, over and against the femininizing implications of using flowery rhetoric that I parsed yesterday. In either instance, though, language, especially as used by a man, is empty and suspect.

There’s a long tradition of being suspicious of language in the West. Satan was, if nothing else, a good rhetorician. In the American context, the Puritan plain style that dominated American letters from the Puritans to Hemingway and on to latter day inheritors like Raymond Carver was deeply suspicious of ornament and rhetorical figure. This tradition was, in practice, deeply masculinist. The real man, like Raymond Chandler’s heroes, used words sparingly if at all, and the words he used were to be direct and to the point. Girls, by contrast, talk too much and use language too well.

The figure of the seducer, then, embodies an interesting conflation of hypersexualized masculinity and a failure of manliness. I say “failure” both because the seducer depends upon language–a “feminine” and suspect tool–and also because the purposes to which that language is put fall short of various images of manly integrity.

The portrait of Obama as a seducer leaves me a tad uncomfortable in terms of the discourse of race, especially as it has been applied to Obama’s appeal to young white women. In some ways Clinton has positioned herself as the maternal protector of the virtue of the nation, and of women especially, sounding cautionary notes to all those wayward and impressionable young 18 to 30 somethings who are in danger of being swept off their feet, swooning in the arms of a grinning black lothario.

I suggested yesterday that Obama’s literary persona blunted fears of a black male planet; but it is intriguing to me how the rhetoric of seduction plays in to and enhances those very same fears. In the New York Times yesterday, Gloria Steinem all but explicitly cast down the challenge to white women to stand up to the black male threat—pointing out that black men have always gotten ahead before women.

The specific of race, class and gender make Steinem’s claims dubious in themselves. Look at things like the life expectancy or class status of white women and black men and ask whose shoes you’d like to be in on average. More, Steinem conveniently glosses over the fact that many white feminists in the nineteenth century actively opposed black male enfranchisement on the basis of racial superiority. I don’t think Steinem goes quite that far, but I don’t like the smell.

The image of Obama as a seducer may not be being actively promoted by political operatives. It may even be true. And I’m not sure it has had that much of a political effect. Clinton won because she worked hard–as is her wont–and because New Hampshire voters troubled by the economy thought she would do a better job. Not, I think, because she mocked Obama’s use of language.

Still, it’s not too far from ugly.

Mitt Romney, Untrustworthy Literary Flip-Flopper

With my headline I just thought I’d try out my chops as a writer of currently high level American political discourse.

Seriously, though, Romney needs to lay hold of a literary position and dig in to the trenches rather than pandering to pundit expectations. This past summer the media exploded with disgust and disdain that Romney declared his favorite book to be L. Ron Hubbard’s Battlefield Earth, a book that I confess has yet to make it to the top of my pile but which John Dickerson at Slate says indicates “very deep levels of weird.” Sensing a scandal in the making, Romney—or rather Romney’s “people”—backpedaled quickly, declaring that Romney’s favorite book was really the Bible. As if we didn’t know that. Battlefield Earth is merely his favorite novel.

This seems to have done little to diminish the very high levels of weirdness the blogosphere detects in the choice of overly long fiction written by the founder of Scientology. My guess is that Romney would have done better to choose something that would overcome the Mormon factor, which for many people, rightly or wrongly, also signifies very high levels of weirdness. (On the other hand, anything sniffing of religion strikes many people in the media as highly weird, so this may not be saying much). Still, I don’t think Mitt’s people wanted the electorate going in to the voting booth with the image of the Romney family Bible stacked on the bedside table alongside the Book of Mormon and a novel by L. Ron Hubbard, especially since that novel focuses on the predatory practices of “hairy 9-foot high, 1000-pound sociopaths” called The Psychlos.

In the passing months, Romney and his people have apparently backpedaled yet further. A gander at Romney’s Facebook page now lists a dozen solid, not to say stolid, books with one novel—Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. What Hemingway described as the foundation of modern American literature takes its place on the Romney bookshelf alongside a variety of business leadership manuals and scary books about the evils that face us: jihadism and Thomas Friedman’s flat world. The weirdness factor seems to be tamped down for good (though I admit I tend to find leadership manuals highly weird, my being a middle level manager in an academic institution notwithstanding).

L. Ron Hubbard has gone the way of all flesh. But so, apparently, has the Bible. The Book of Mormon still has yet to show its face and I really think that some intrepid reporter needs to ask Mitt why that may be. Just what, exactly, is he hiding? Religion is represented by Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life. For many politicos, Warren is clearly much safer than the Bible. He is after all “a new evangelical,” which in our current political lexicon tends to mean an evangelical you could bring to fundraiser without worrying about whether you could offer him alcohol. Certainly Warren’s book can be brought up at a Republican cocktail party without raising eyebrows, something you can’t always say about the Bible. Depends on the cocktail party. I’m not sure that this says a lot for Rick Warren, or for how well people may be reading his book, but the image does go along with Romney’s well-coifed hair and perfectly massaged public image.

Last year I wrote a paper, still being revised, where I speculated a bit on the ways people used books to identify with others. We signal our desires, values, goals, interests through the kinds of books we read—or pretend to read—and how and where we read them. But what exactly is Mitt signaling with all this shelf-shuffling? Probably nothing, except that he wants to be president. I was prepared to write a few paragraphs on the peculiar choice of Huckleberry Finn as a boy who stood against the status quo, willing to give up his status and his standing—little as it was—to try and do the right thing. How different and odd that choice seemed given that Romney seemed mostly about status and the status quo. However, I suspect, frankly, that the leadership manuals are Romney’s real favorites and Huckleberry Finn is a book he remembers from his days as an undergraduate English major at BYU.

I actually think Mitt really likes Battlefield Earth, that this literary slip of the tongue was the real literary Mitt before he realized the weirdness quotient could do him in with the 1% of the electorate that actually cares about what he reads. I liked him better because of it. We all have our perverse reading pleasures. Things we get in to against our better natures. This devious pleasure-taking in the alternative world of literature is one of the great things literature affords us. I think of myself as a half-baked pacifist but I can’t get enough of war movies. Heaven forbid, but I sometimes prefer a vampire novel to the latest tome by Don Delillo or Philip Roth. I actually like the fact that Mitt Romney loves shlocky sci-fi novels that have been badly-written by a man a few pancakes short of a full stack. It suggests to me that Romney’s hair isn’t perfect when he gets out of bed in the morning, that maybe when he can’t sleep late at night he gets on a sci-fi chatroom and becomes Megalorg, laser scourge of the planet Kryl-9.

Or whatever.

Makes him human and interesting, a little like Hillary’s tears earlier today.

What I don’t like is that he seems to change his favorites at the first whiff of scandal. Too much like the guy in high school who always seemed to find a way to like whatever the cool kids liked. The guy held in contempt by even the people he calls friends.