Tag Archives: politics

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.

In Praise of Shyness, Solitude, and Oppositional Defiant Disorder (And All Other Personality Disorders Associated with Reading): Or, What’s Wrong With Being Disconnected?

A review posted on spiked-online.com, “Humanity, Though Art Sick,” discusses Christopher Lane’s new book Shyness: How Normal Behaviour Became a Sickness. Among other things it appears that Lane discusses the exponential pathologization of the human race at the hands of the American Psychiatric Association, with particular emphasis on the way shyness or a tendency toward introversion has gradually come to be seen as a deviation from human normality.

A couple of excerpts from Helene Guldberg’s review:

‘In my mother’s generation, shy people were seen as introverted and perhaps a bit awkward, but never mentally ill.’

So writes the Chicago-based research professor, Christopher Lane, in his fascinating new book Shyness: How Normal Behaviour Became a Sickness. ‘Adults admired their bashfulness, associated it with bookishness, reserve, and a yen for solitude. But shyness isn’t just shyness any more. It is a disease. It has a variety of over-wrought names, including “social anxiety” and “avoidant personality disorder”, afflictions said to trouble millions’, Lane continues.….

Lane writes: ‘Beginning in 1980, with much fanfare and confidence in its revised diagnoses, the American Psychiatric Association added “social phobia”, “avoidant personality disorder”, and several similar conditions to the third edition of its massively expanded Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. In this 500-page volume… the introverted individual morphed into the mildly psychotic person whose symptoms included being aloof, being dull, and simply “being alone”.’ Shyness now allegedly almost rivals depression in magnitude, a ‘sickness’ for which ‘almost 200million prescriptions are filled every year’ in the USA. Apparently, social phobia – shyness – ‘has become a pandemic’, says Lane….

The sad consequence of this state of affairs is that the range of ‘healthy behaviour’ is being increasingly narrowed. ‘Our quirks and eccentricities – the normal emotional range of adolescence and adulthood – have become problems we fear and expect drugs to fix’, Lane writes. ‘We are no longer citizens justifiably concerned about our world, who sometimes need to be alone. Our affiliations are chronic anxiety, personality or mood disorders; our solitude is a marker for mild psychosis; our dissent, a symptom of Oppositional Defiant Disorder; our worries, chemical imbalance that drugs must cure.’

In general this book—at least based on the review—seems simpatico with the recent essay by Eric Wilson in the Chronicle of Higher education (Yes, the essay that I generally dissed in an earlier post, but which I still think was topically interesting. According to Wilson:

A recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center shows that almost 85 percent of Americans believe that they are very happy or at least pretty happy. The psychological world is now abuzz with a new field, positive psychology, devoted to finding ways to enhance happiness through pleasure, engagement, and meaning. Psychologists practicing this brand of therapy are leaders in a novel science, the science of happiness. Mainstream publishers are learning from the self-help industry and printing thousands of books on how to be happy. Doctors offer a wide array of drugs that might eradicate depression forever. It seems truly an age of almost perfect contentment, a brave new world of persistent good fortune, joy without trouble, felicity with no penalty.

Why are most Americans so utterly willing to have an essential part of their hearts sliced away and discarded like so much waste? What are we to make of this American obsession with happiness, an obsession that could well lead to a sudden extinction of the creative impulse, that could result in an extermination as horrible as those foreshadowed by global warming and environmental crisis and nuclear proliferation? What drives this rage for complacency, this desperate contentment?

I’m not sure that this amounts to a backlash, but anecdotally it does seem to me that there’s been a little more questioning of the notion that we ought to get rid of every hiccup in our emotional well-being. Recently a mother of one of my children’s friends told me they had taken their child off mood-altering medication. The child has responded with new confidence in class and by growing two inches in two months. Re. moods….Maybe there’s something OK about feeling that there’s something askew in a world where men and women are coming home maimed from a foreign war in which they’ve done far more maiming of women and children than our own country would ever politically endure in its wildest dreams or nightmares. Maybe it’s Ok for a teenager to feel that they don’t fit in so well with the in crowd. I think we think every such teenager is on the brink of Columbine. Maybe feeling a little disconnected will lead them to … read books. Hey, maybe it’s Ok to not feel wonderful, and maybe, just maybe it’s Ok to not want to join in with the gang all the time. Gangs, after all, are called gangs for good reason.

For my own purposes, I’m intrigued by the degree to which behaviours often associated with reading fall along the lines of…well…currently defined personality disorders. I mean, read the history of readers from Jean Toomer to Richard Rodriguez to Anna Quindlen. (To Pete Powers, if I had an autobiography out there that anyone would read). We are not, for the most part, the types who are great joiners. I mean, Joyce Carol Oates is one of my heroes. A person who spends her life alone in a room, apparently, about 14 hours a day, doing little more than disgorging words in to a computer.

Indeed, I remember as a college student reading an essay wherein Walker Percy says something like there’s nothing more alienating for a sad and lonely person than reading a book about happy people while sitting on a bus full of happy people. (Actually, I think there is something more alienating in my experience; attending a party full of happy people and not having anything at all on hand to read, not even a book about happy people). By contrast, the happiest thing in the world for such a person is to read a story about a sad and lonely person while sitting sad and lonely on a bus.

Percy didn’t make me want to go out and join a book group. He did make me smile and ask “How did he know?” I didn’t have to be with Walker Percy and share a hot toddy to know I was not alone, less alone than I often feel at parties with people sharing hot toddies. (Which, as I think of it, I never am since hot toddies are from Louisiana and I don’t think they know how to make them in Pennsylvania.)

This leap is full of logical fallacies, but it seems to me no accident that the apparent decline in reading of fiction and of levels of reading comprehension has accompanied the pathologization of solitude in American culture. It hasn’t just been the American Psychiatric Association. It’s been in business with business models that emphasize working groups rather than individual initiative. It’s been in religion and it’s been in the discussion of family values.

(Let me say that although I am a Democrat I nearly became nauseated when Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Edwards proclaimed in their last debate “We’re all family.” Good Grief. It’s enough to make one think again about John McCain. Anything to escape the cloying grip of politics family style. We aren’t a village or a family. We are a big beast of a country, largely run by a military-industrial complex intricately intertwined with a system of global finance and corporate capitalism that even leading economists admit that they can’t fully comprehend. I would like to believe that our politicians realize we don’t want the country run by our Aunt Joe or Uncle Sue. No accident that John McCain spent five years alone in a brutal cell. He learned something all the joiners may never figure out).

Above all things, of course, the ideology of the internet–with its relentless drumbeat of connection, connection, connection–teaches us that lonerdom is peculiar and worthy of suspicion . Ever faster, ever more omnipresent, ever more inescapable. The compulsion to “friend”–the ubiquitous and sad new verb of our era–utter strangers. Even those that critique the internet as not really connecting us at all—as Lee Siegel apparently does in in his newest book on internet culture—even these critics exalt the ideal of connectedness above all else. Internet connection is bad, not because connection is worthy of thought or criticism, but because the internet purportedly does not provide true and authentic connection and community. Everyone and their mother exalts community and connectedness. What new pill or what technology or what community reading program will get us there? Whereas dictatorships control readers and writers by shooting them, we control them by pathologizing the behaviours that might lead…horrors…to hours spent alone doing God knows what.

Indeed, why read anymore at all to confirm the importance of your own solitude and sadness. Take a pill, you’ll feel better in the morning. Or join a book group.

At moments like this I feel like becoming a back-to-the-lander.

Let it be said, maybe we are too connected. Maybe we need more solitude. Maybe we need more silence without the relentless need to hear (or see on screen) the clattering voices of someone else, as if we are too afraid to listen to the clattering voices in our own imagination.

In this spirit, I have to confess that I am less than thrilled with the advent of bookglutton.com (though, in the spirit of America the connected, I’m planning on joining up), which I discovered on a blog at teleread.org this morning. At Bookglutton, you read books collectively online with others, viewing their comments on every page as you go along. Every book a blog. No longer the absorbed attention that borders on the mystical that we experience in traditional intensive reading, caught up in the alternative world created by another’s imagination. Instead, now, even reading books will be like attending movies where one-third of the audience converses on cell phones, another third texts friends on the opposite side of the theater, and the final third feels compelled to engage everyone around them with their commentary–as if they were afraid they might be sitting alone in the dark.

Am I alone in thinking that there is something pathological about this need to connect? Is it possible that a people who has lost the capacity for contented solitude, or even discontented solitude, who has not learned to embrace its own loneliness, is it possible that such a people is maybe just a little bit sick?

Now that you have finished reading my blog, write me a comment. Please. I am feeling disconnected. And lonely. And Sad.

I think I’ll take a pill. Or find someone to friend.

Support Kenya

Friends, given the disaster that is ongoing in Kenya, I decided to create a new page, “Support Kenya,” that would allow folks to get involved (the few dozen of you who visit this page, that is:)). There’s a link on that page from folks at AVAAZ.org that will allow you to contact Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice to urge more decisive diplomatic intervention on the part of the United States.

Michael Chabon and Ghost of Wallace Stevens in Political Slug Fest!

Ok. Again. Not. However, I remain fascinated by the rhetorical irresponsibility that blogging makes possible.

In keeping with the literary politics of the season, the New York Times reports this morning that there’s a new book out with women writers reflecting on Hillary Clinton. The title, Thirty Ways of Looking at Hillary Clinton, recalls Wallace Stevens “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Bird.” The choice apparently reflects the content of the book since Stevens’s poem is all about how perspective makes and in some sense is the object of our reflection.

I

Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.

II

I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.

III

The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.

Ok, I hope you have a better time making sense of this than I do with my students. After saying “This poem is about perspective” conversation mostly comes to an end and we twiddle our thumbs for fifty minutes. Nevertheless, the blackbird, and apparently Hillary, are nothing apart from how we construct them in our imaginations.

Kakutani isn’t terribly impressed, but I have to say that I find Kakutani too often follows the unacknowledged dictum of many contemporary book and movie reviewers: Slander everything unless you find it absolutely impossible not to. Finding fault too often substitutes for seriousness.

The following is from the introduction by Susan Morrison:

“On a shelf in my kitchen is a campaign button that I picked up during the 1992 presidential race. Over a photo of Hillary (bangs and headband phase—which was basically my look then, too) are the words ‘Elect Hillary’s Husband.’ Back then, the slogan produced a kind of giddy frisson: not only was the candidate just like someone I could have gone to college with—a baby boomer—but his wife was, too. And she had a job! I had only known first ladies as creaky battleaxes who sat under hairdryers and wore brooches. The thrill associated with that button feels far away now, and it’s hard to know exactly why. There’s no doubt that the rinky-dink scandals of the Clinton administration and the dismal parade of special prosecutors took the gleam off the fresh start that the Clintons brought with them to Washington. But that doesn’t quite explain how now, fifteen years later, there is not more simple exuberance at the idea that we may be about to elect our first woman president.
….
“No other politician inspires such a wide range of passionate responses, and this is particularly true among women. As I talked with women about their reactions to Hillary, some themes came up again and again. Many women were divided within themselves as to how they feel about her, and I noticed a familiar circle of guilt: these women believe they should support Hillary as a matter of solidarity. But, because they expect her to be different from (that is, better than) the average male politician, she invariably disappoints them; then they feel guilty about their ambivalence. Some feel competitive with her. Having wearily resigned themselves to the idea that ‘having it all’ is too much to hope for, they view Hillary as a rebuke: how did she manage to pull it off—or, at least, to appear to pull it off? Other women say they want to like her but are disturbed by the anti-feminist message inherent in the idea of the first woman president getting to the White House on her husband’s coattails. Then there are women, like the late playwright Wendy Wasserstein, who are queasy over the way Clinton’s popularity spiked only after she was perceived as a victim. When it became clear that Hillary was going to stand by her man after the Lewinsky fracas, Wasserstein wrote a disheartened Op-ed piece in the New York Times. ‘The name Hillary Rodham Clinton no longer stands for self-determination, but for the loyal, betrayed wife,’ she wrote. ‘Pity and admiration have become synonymous.’

Side note: Morrison’s text is one of many that echo Stevens’s poem. Gates’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man, Smiley’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Novel. A quick Google search shows 44,600 references to the phrase “Thirteen Ways of Looking.” There are, I guess 17 extra ways of looking at the prismatic Hillary Clinton. I find Wallace Stevens resilient popularity and influence on our culture a bit boggling. Maybe it’s because most of us are leading the dull lives of insurance salesman and long to release our inner poets.

Thus the popularity of blogging? Anyone can be a poet now. Everyone is.

So much for craft.

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.

Reference: Maureen Dowd, My Hero

Actually not, since half the time I think Dowd substitutes irratibility for thoughtfulness. Still, I thought this article was an interesting reflection on some of the gender issues I’ve also been taking up the last couple of days. According to Dowd:

“There was a poignancy about the moment, seeing Hillary crack with exhaustion from decades of yearning to be the principal rather than the plus-one. But there was a whiff of Nixonian self-pity about her choking up. What was moving her so deeply was her recognition that the country was failing to grasp how much it needs her. In a weirdly narcissistic way, she was crying for us. But it was grimly typical of her that what finally made her break down was the prospect of losing. “

This strikes me as unfairly harsh. Clinton is a few country miles from Nixonian. But it does suggest that Clinton’s own construal of the gender war that’s going on over emotion is suspect. Clinton defended herself by saying male leaders are allowed to cry while women aren’t. All tears are not, in fact, equal, nor do they communicate similar things.

Men do, in fact, cry on the campaign trail. Strategically, no less. Cynically, no doubt. But the prospect of a man gaining points by crying because the trail is so hard and the people so unheeding is unfathomable.

Dowd goes on:

“Hillary sounded silly trying to paint Obama as a poetic dreamer and herself as a prodigious doer. “Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act,” she said. Did any living Democrat ever imagine that any other living Democrat would try to win a presidential primary in New Hampshire by comparing herself to L.B.J.? (Who was driven out of politics by Gene McCarthy in New Hampshire.)”

“Her argument against Obama now boils down to an argument against idealism, which is probably the lowest and most unlikely point to which any Clinton could sink. The people from Hope are arguing against hope.”

Author! Author! Of course, I’m always most impressed with Dowd’s brilliance when she agrees with my own brilliant opinions.

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.

Side bar: Hillary’s Tears: Human all too Human.

I was pretty harsh on Hillary yesterday and today she goes and cries. I’m sure there’s a connection.

I’m fascinated by the media’s decision to say that she didn’t cry; her eyes merely filled with tears. (What? They are going to zoom in on her face and, if one of those brimming tears falls, suddenly she’s weak?? ) Somehow too, this made her miraculously human for the reporters in the room. I’m not mocking it. I felt it too. After 35 years of hard work it finally seemed like maybe it was just a little too much. Indeed, I was appalled that some in the media questioned whether the tears were pre-planned. Probably a reflex action from a campaign that has seemed buttoned down and machine-like from the beginning. I suspect she’ll get a five point bounce in the polls. Not to be cynical about her tears, but this is the kind of thing that was missing from her candidacy—the sense of spontaneous humanity that Obama pulls from the air with the greatest of ease.

In a just world, perhaps hard work would be all that matters. Not our world, I’m afraid.

Picking up on yesterday’s post, I’m also struck by the way this stuff is so thoroughly gendered. It is almost absolutely impossible to imagine Obama getting away with tears in reflecting on how hard it is to campaign. Or even the brink of tears. We could forgive Edwards if he got brimming eyes while talking about his wife’s cancer, and probably even if he watered up while talking about a young girl who couldn’t get a liver transplant. But if he started dripping over how hard it is to fight the fight, you can be sure his fight would be over. Hillary, of course, doesn’t have it easy; she’s expected to be hard and tough and a man among men, but she’s also got to be soft, got to reassure us that she hasn’t lost the woman within even while she’s going toe to toe with the bad guys. Tears do it for her.

Men would not be forgiven it, as Ed Muskie wasn’t. Men have to show their humanity in different ways. By playing bass guitar for a rock band at the local bar. By reading books that suggest depth but not weirdness. By hunting for geese in Iowa in below zero wind chill.

It’s hard on everyone.

Barack Obama Sings America

Let it be said now. Barack Obama channels Walt Whitman.

Nevertheless, something there is in a political woman that doesn’t like poetry in a man. MSNBC reports today that Hillary has chosen to attack Obama by mocking his eloquence. She’s been stumping in New Hampshire, saying “You campaign in poetry, you govern in prose.” One of many jabs that Hillary uses to demonstrate her superior manliness to Obama and his fluff, the quote comes originally from Mario Cuomo. Another Clinton favorite: “I’m a doer, not a talker.”

May be. Though it does seem to me that Hillary is a little tone deaf on this one. She is, after all, campaigning and not governing, as if she has forgotten that she has to campaign after all. I’m also not so sure it’s a wonderful move to deride the citizenry for having false hopes. (Who does she have writing this stuff?) All of this is of a piece of Hillary’s general effort to demonstrate that she has the cojones to be president. And that her own cojones…among other things…are a lot bigger than Edwards or Obama.

Indeed, I was fascinated with the way last night’s debate among the Democrats degenerated toward a variety of male stereotypes—as if we can’t get past the masculine image even at this moment when the stereotypical image of masculine leadership seems to be less stable than ever.

In one corner, we had Edwards the pugilist, who seems bound and determined to be fighting everyone and everything. “You can’t nice these people.” Another jab at Obama’s apparently suspect masculinity. I wished someone would give Edwards some valium, or else a good book to read. In another corner we had Richardson the affable elder statesman (who, in my estimation, pushed himself a notch closer to the vice presidency). Clinton played the hardnosed greybeard realist with her nose to the grindstone. She’s apparently been working non-stop for 35 years. Does it occur to her that when she says this most Americans say “Why don’t you take a vacation. I would. In fact, I’ll be glad to give you one.”

Which left Obama to be….What?….again, something that seemed new, that didn’t seem to quite fit in.

Still, I’m getting far afield from my original purpose. I’m intrigued by the role that literary metaphors are playing in the political campaign so far, and especially in Hillary’s latest attacks. The Huffington Post had a much quoted blog a few weeks ago to the effect that Obama was poetry and Clinton was prose. Hillary’s attack picks up on this dichotomy and falls into typical masculine stereotypes that men who like poetry are just a little too effeminate for comfort, at least for political comfort. Hillary’s attacks called to my mind Maureen Dowd’s skewering in the New York Times of John Kerry in two different op-ed pieces because he not only read but also wrote poetry. Didn’t this signify somehow, Dowd seemed to imply, that Kerry was too unreliable, too unserious, or at least not serious in the right ways, to play with the big boys. See June 8 2003 and March 7, 2004 in the New York Times.

Picking up on my post from yesterday, I’m intrigued with how the candidates use literature as a means of communicating something about themselves, and whether what they reveal about their literary tastes and interests says anything about them. I went on the respective candidates’ Facebook pages to see just what it said about their literary interests.

About Hillary I discovered….zilch, zero, nada. Indeed, Hillary’s Facebook page offers absolutely nothing about her personal interests at all. As if in playing out the traditional masculine split between public and private, she has to absolutely deny that she has any personal interests whatsoever. Or maybe it is just that her personal interests only extend to becoming president of the United States.

Of all the candidates, Obama’s is the most extensive, the most diverse, and the most dominated by literary texts. He names Moby Dick, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, The Tragedies of Shakespeare, Taylor Branch’s biography of Martin Luther King Jr. Parting the Waters, Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, Self-Reliance by Emerson, The Bible, Lincoln’s Collected Writings.

My God, the guy actually reads. I mean, I have no doubt that these pages are massaged and picked over by staff for the kinds of messages that might be sent. (More on Mitt Romney’s choice of Huckleberry Finn—an apparently quick correction from an earlier choice of a novel by L. Ron Hubbard that earned guffaws from the blogosphere last year– and Mike Huckabee’s choice of The Holy Bible in another day or two). But Obama has to have actually read this stuff, and he has to actually read books for his own interest. Having read Gilead by Marilynne Robinson not only helps him with the literary crowd—he doesn’t really need the help, they’ll mostly vote for him anyway—it also helps him with moderate and educated evangelicals who found Robinson’s novel immensely complex and moving, testimony yet again that the connections between literature and religion are hardly dead. They’re just quiet.

By comparison, I guess I was disappointed at the fact that Hillary didn’t list anything at all. I dug around for awhile—unscientific word searches on Google—and finally found a reference at the NEA where Hillary suggests her favorite book as a child was “Goodnight Moon.” A lovely choice. I read it ad nauseum to my kids, but am now far enough removed from the cuteness that I get warm fuzzies at the sound of the title.

Has she read anything since? She did not list a favorite adult book on the NEA. I also just found a blog on the same topic at Huffington Post that says Hillary chooses Little Women and The Poisonwood Bible. However, I can’t find anything else readily available that confirms these choices. Still, I think they are worthy choices if true. John Lundberg finds them too predictable. I’m not sure that I agree but they do suggest a certain prepackaged quality of control and safeness to me. The bitter attack on fundamentalism in the Poisonwood Bible won’t win her fans with the hardest core of fundamentalists, but, again, they wouldn’t vote for her anyway.

I admit to disappointment in having to dig so hard to find out anything about Hillary’s literary tastes. Whereas Obama strikes me as a person to have in your book group. What a great conversation that would be after eight years of a president who can’t be bothered by literature. Too much nose to the grindstone for the imagination to have much play for Hillary. Somehow it says something to me that Obama is presenting himself as a literary man while I have to dig and dig to figure out if Hillary reads anything other than the bible she apparently carries with her everywhere—and which still does nothing for her with the biblically literate electorate.

Still, I’m wondering if Hillary’s graybeard, workaholic, no-time-for novels, approach to this political campaign will really win out in the end. America famously honors novels more in the breach than in reality. Real men—and Hillary in some ways has to prove that she’s man enough for the job—have no time for literary folderol. Obama’s depth and complexity run the risk of seeming, well, wimpy, something both Clinton and Edwards have keyed in on.

I’ll take a risk here and say that Obama can get away with it because he’s …black. Odd leap, I realize, but bear with me. In white America’s racial codes, black men are portrayed as hypermasculinized, all body and no mind. There’s a lot of scholarly material out there on the historical fears that white Americans have of black American masculinity (I’ve drawn on some of this and use it in my book on masculinity and religion in the Harlem renaissance—freely admitting that “book” is a hopeful word for the 400+ pages that now sit in my computer, just starting as we are to sniff around for a publisher). Obama’s literariness and his lyrical eloquence serve to humanize him for a white audience that, while improving, is not so very far removed from the appeals of Willie Horton ads. Henry Louis Gates, after all, has pointed out that historically blacks used literacy—the ability to read and write literature—to demonstrate their full humanity to white audiences. I don’t think it’s a great leap to say that Obama’s literary card softens residual white fears of a black male planet.

Obama’s poetry, his admirably diverse literary interests, serve the purposes of showing him once again as a uniter, someone who brings all things together. He brings black and white together. He brings Herman Melville and Marilynne Robinson and Toni Morrison and Shakespeare together. He brings male and female together. He brings his hard political and his soft literary sides together.

Obama’s literariness strikes me as genuine and authentic—though I realize that in this day and age even authenticity is pre-packaged. His literariness quite clearly matches and even enhances his political imaginary. Obama’s literary “softness,” deadly to men like John Kerry and John Edwards–and perhaps deadly, too, for political women like Hillary Clinton–plays to the idea that he can be all things.

He is large. He contains multitudes.

He too sings America.

Side note: I’ve added Liz Laribee’s blog, peaceamillion, to my blogroll. Liz is one of the funniest, and best, young writers that I know. Of course, I don’t know that many young writers. Sorry, Liz. The truth will out. No seriously. Everyone should go delight in Lizworld.