Writing for the Crowds

I’m not saying we should all go back to inkwells or anything, but Sara Coleridge may be right. If we save our best writing for public consumption, we risk undervaluing the potential benefits of personal correspondence:

Sara Coleridge“Be Milton, however, what he may, I admire you for being eloquent about him in a private letter, just like my father, and unlike these folks, who treasure up all their thoughts that are not about vulgar things, for Reviews and Magazines or their next volume” (The Regions of Sara Coleridge’s Thought, ed. Peter Swaab [New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012], 21).

In light of this, I’m now considering writing a weekly “open letter” to the first 1000 friends who “like” my page on Facebook. jk

Gazing at “Royal Bodies”: On Kings, Queens, and Country Stars

HilaryMantelCroppedHilary Mantel’s recent London Review of Books lecture “Royal Bodies” challenges the pervasive temptation to transform people into objects of the pervasive public gaze.

Mantel recalls an encounter with the Queen at Buckingham Palace. Everyone avoids her, sweeping aside in her royal presence—except for Mantel, who sees through her in an instant of penetrating vision: “for a moment she had turned back from a figurehead into the young woman she was, before monarchy froze her and made her a thing, a thing which only had meaning when it was exposed, a thing that existed only to be looked at.”

Mantel felt regret in that moment. She wasn’t looking at her, she explains, only the monarchy. Reversing the gaze, Mantel imagines the weary-eyed perspective of the Prince of Wales after yet another public spectacle: “You see that your life is a charade, that the scenery is cardboard, that the paint is peeling, the red carpet fraying, and if you linger you will notice the oily devotion fade from the faces of your subjects, and you will see their retreating backs as they turn up their collars and button their coats and walk away into real life.”

The curiosity to see through others has left once vibrant individuals not as disembodied souls, but de-spirited bodies, subject to the appetite of public interest, devoid of vitality.

McCready2And is this really any different from the consumer culture that surrounds celebrities and professional athletes? Just the other day, famed country musician Mindy McCready took her own life, having battled publicly with addiction and loss for years. Dr. Drew Pinsky, physician and television host, claims she “became so fearful of the stigma and the way people were responding to her being hospitalized that she actually checked herself out prematurely . . . it didn’t have to go down like this.” A royal life, indeed.

It doesn’t take tragedy to recognize the slow spiral downwards. Who in the United States hasn’t found the intense media celebration of Michael Jordan’s fiftieth birthday just a bit uncomfortable? So much attention to a man . . . was he the greatest player ever? Could he still play on an NBA team today? But stop and think for a moment: Would anyone be surprised to discover that Jordan finds the celebration-as-spectacle surrounding his aging body entirely humiliating?

Mantel, ever the artist, closes her lecture with words about kings and queens—and perhaps country singers and athletes, too: “Cheerful curiosity can easily become cruelty. It can easily become fatal. We don’t cut off the heads of royal ladies these days, but we do sacrifice them, and we did memorably drive one to destruction a scant generation ago. History makes fools of us, makes puppets of us, often enough. But it doesn’t have to repeat itself.”

The lesson, for me, is clear: we can still have our heroes, still celebrate our symbols of greatness or beauty or accomplishment. Yet these symbols of power and greatness remain people—bodies and souls and spirit and the muck that makes us fully and fallibly human. Mantel has this much right: “much lies within our control. I’m not asking for censorship. I’m not asking for pious humbug and smarmy reverence. I’m asking us to back off and not be brutes.”

The Key to Success

gladwell outliersSeveral friends of mine recently told me that I simply must read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success (2008). Some of these friends are business types—they manage money or make lots of it—or both. I’m a college professor, so I suppose they hoped I might be inspired by the book and one day put my talents to better use; make some money, perhaps.

Gladwell’s Outliers grew out of a search for what sets apart successful people—“outliers” of society whose unusual success breaks the normal patterns of history. Most people, at least in the United States, explain success by looking to individual ability or genius. Gladwell points to the astounding number of self-help books and the genius-mystique surrounding technological trailblazers such as Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. The fascinating success of these “outliers” bolsters the appeal of the American myth of self-reliance.

In fact, Gladwell’s Outliers demonstrates what historians have told us all along: success isn’t simply the result of talent, self-determination, or genius alone. Success depends on context, community, and “coincidence.” Gladwell repeats a refrain throughout his book: some individuals “just happened” to have the right opportunities at the right time (whether the birth month of Canadian hockey players or unparalleled access to mainframe computers among up-and-coming techies in the 1960s and 1970s).

Wilfred Owen

Gladwell’s idea got me thinking about some modern examples from literary and religious history. Many could be mentioned, but here’s just one: The English World War I poet Wilfred Owen had the tools for writing great poetry from early in his life, but his “success” derived from more than inspired vision. Poet-soldiers such as Owen, writing amidst destruction and death during the Great War, moved to the forefront of early twentieth-century literature because their writings gave voice to profound suffering and doubt around them, within them:

Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning. (from “Dulce et Decorum Est”)

Owen also depended on community: especially the influence of literary mentors such as Siegfried Sassoon.

Owen’s story—an outlier in the history of literature—challenges popular notions of success. He didn’t strike it rich through his poems. He “just happened” to die in the war. That’s hardly the stuff of success, and not the kind of thing you’ll find recommended in the self-help section of the bookstore. But in the case of a poet writing about suffering in the “war to end all wars,” death built a legacy to complement profound poetic achievement.

In truth, Gladwell’s Outliers illustrates, for those seeking fame and fortune through business, what any student of history already knows: the community shapes the individual, context is everything, and there’s really no such thing as coincidence. Of course, history also reveals what most books on success willfully choose to forget: there’s more to success than can be measured in the course of a lifetime.

(With thanks to my friends Bryant, James, Ted, and Doug.)

The Problem with Reading

My love affair with books and libraries began some time in elementary school and continues to this day. Thankfully, my wife has the same problem, so reading unexpectedly draws us out of ourselves and into accepting communion with one another.

The Night BookmobileReading and relationships aren’t so easy for Lexi, the main character of Audrey Niffenegger’s poignant graphic novel The Night Bookmobile (2010). Lexi lives in Chicago, walks the streets early in the morning, and, one day, discovers the open door of an old Winnebago at the corner of Ravenswood and Belle Plaine.

Inside the mysterious bookmobile, Lexi meets a librarian—Mr. Openshaw—who allows her to roam through stacks of books . . . the reading history of her life, from cereal boxes to novels and everything in-between.

Niffenegger’s short story is tragic and haunting—at once a cautionary tale and a record of how the stories we read become the narrative of our lives: “Have you ever found your heart’s desire and then lost it? I had seen myself, a portrait of myself as a reader. My childhood: hours spent in airless classrooms, days home sick from school reading Nancy Drew, forbidden books read secretively late at night . . . It was as though I had dreamt the perfect lover, who vanished as I woke, leaving me pining and surely.”

As with so many others—the Pevensie children and that mysterious wardrobe, or Harry Potter seated at the foot of the Mirror of Erised—Lexi finds herself longing for a world she cannot control, cannot inhabit, except by living . . . and reading.

But, as Lexi’s troubled journey reveals, the love of literature is full of trappings. When we read, we risk encountering new perspectives and new ideas—new narratives against which we may measure our lives. Sounds wonderful, even romantic. In truth, it’s terrifying.

The dark side of reading—the capacity for books to turn us inward or outward or upside-down—the “moral” dimension of reading—is seldom discussed, but deserves our attention. Imagination is a source of delight, but it can also be a realm of horror. Ideas may change us or even destroy the patterns of daily existence.

Books bring us into communion with otherness. To know and understand the other is to come to grips with the particularity and limits of the self. In the fusion of these horizons—the encounter between text and reader, as Hans-Georg Gadamer aptly describes it—we face both the possibilities as well as the dangers of change.