Still really happy I never did the required reading in school

Hello friends. I am so sleepy today. Not sure what’s wrong with me. I’ve been doing a lot of writing on the bed these days, because, what with the baby, space is a little limited in the house, and I think all this lying prone can really take it out of you.

I’ve generally been feeling cheerful. My last book, Enter Title Here sold like 5x more copies in hardback than it did in paperback, presumably because a lot of the sales were driven by school and library collections (they tend to purchase in hardback). But We Are Totally Normal has been doing well in paperback! Overall I’d say the book has met or exceeded overall sales expectations, esp since it came out right at the beginning of the pandemic and most copies of the book, I imagine, sat in closed bookstores for months. I mean the book didn’t set the world on fire, but it didn’t flop either, and this is something that a person learns to appreciate. Get your copy of the paperback here!

I do wish I had more energy though. I’m sure if I ate better, slept better, worked out, I wouldn’t feel so worn out. I’ve never been that person though. How did everybody get so healthy??? I’m not the first person to note that there is something of a class marker here. At some point in the nineties all the upper middle class people got the memo that you need to devote yourself to health and exercise. Even when I was in college, a significant number of my classmates engaged in optional exercise, which still strikes me as absurd. I mean it’s one thing to be thirty-five and exercise, but to be 20 and regularly going to the gym? Just doesn’t make sense. Somehow people knew, though! They were like this is important! Silly go-getters. I have to say, there are things that other people did that I am glad I never did, like study hard in college, get good grades, apply myself to my work, and do the required reading for classes.

Letting other people determined how you expend your emotional energies is no good. Like, yes, do the work, but don’t care about the work. If you work too hard at other peoples’ priorities, you get halfway through life without ever figuring out who you are. I have to say, I am especially down on required reading. It seems antithetical to the spirit of the classics to read them and then immediately have some learned professor explain them to you. What’s the point? You might as well just not do the reading and just listen to the explanations instead. The writing world is full of people who got all their opinions about literature from their undergrad professors, just like the political world is full of people whose political opinions are a direct cribbing on the New York Times editorial page.

Life is so much more luxurious when you indulge yourself. Having your own opinions about things is a form of indulgence, in that it’s not good for you, the opinions are frequently incorrect and indefensible, and it feels so good. A friend today forwarded me these two Elif Batuman12 essays about how terrible MFA programs are. I loved them obviously, as I love everything that slags MFAs and the MFA system. But these aren’t fresh takes, they’re simply eloquent ones. You’ll never find a person who defends the MFA system in its entirety, nor will you find someone who says that American letters is healthy and producing tons of interesting work. The bias is obvious here. In one essay Batuman reads The Best American Essays and then she reads a Chekhov story collection. She doesn’t read Best Russian Stories of 1885. If she did, I imagine that she would find plenty that is second-rate (although it is true that at perhaps no other time and place in history was so much first-rate fiction written as in 19th century Russia).

But it’s fun to hate MFAs. Writers are wonderful at developing hypotheses about things. But we have a terrible time proving them. Almost everything that people say is wrong. Human brains aren’t particularly scientific. We hardly bother to define what we’re talking about, much less the conditions under which we might consider that thing to be true. And to go the step further and actually test the hypothesis is something that is beyond almost all people, and in most situations can’t be done. So we’re wrong, most of the time. And when we’re not wrong, it’s because someone else did the work of figuring out the truth. But what’s the solution? To simply not think? Not say? To withhold judgement? That’s no fun whatsoever.

Exercising your own mind isn’t particularly good for you–nobody thinks more for themselves than a conspiracy theorist–if you’ve ever spoken to one, you’ll find them impossible to defeat in an argument, not because their arguments are true, but because they’ve simply thought much harder about their position than you have about yours. They have facts upon facts to prove 9/11 was an inside job, and what do you have? Just a vague sense that, well, it probably wasn’t. But you are still right, and they are still wrong. A person’s rightness or wrongness has nothing to do with how smart they are and everything to do with how willing they are to trust the authority of mainstream scientists and researchers.

But that doesn’t leave much for you to do, does it? Where is the residue? Where is the space for the individual to make some kind of contribution? I think this is one reason I don’t do much discussion of politics on this blog. I have opinions, obviously! Half my conversations these days are about cancel culture, and the benefits or dangers thereof. Anybody who is in the business of producing culture has to think about whether their work is racist or sexist or homophobic. It’s onerous. The criticisms can be boring, humorless, and a bit reductive, but they’re a part of life.

For many people, the question of whether or not a YA novel is racist seems to be deadly serious and on par with climate charge, the carceral state and the endless war on Terror. For other people, the overreach of cancel culture is an existential threat to free speech. My god, these kids are going to destroy independent thought!

It’s hard to even begin to analyze the truth or falseness of these opinions. Both sides can be supported with argument. But largely we just don’t know. There are claims here that can be tested empirically, but the test is so difficult as to be in practice impossible. What is the effect of a book? Even if a book is racist, what harm does it do? What harm does it do to suppress the book? How do we create a peaceful and equitable society? These aren’t questions of values–we all want political and economic equity–they’re questions of fact–what means will lead to the outcome we all desire?

I just don’t know. Nobody does. And all the chatter back and forth about the topic leads us no closer to finding the real answer. But it’s not without its pleasures.

2 thoughts on “Still really happy I never did the required reading in school

  1. Alaina

    One thing I’ve learned in the last 5 years (I’m 39) is that some people just enjoy exercising. Because it feels good! They get floods of happy chemicals. And it doesn’t feel good to other people, because like everything else that hormonal response differs person to person. This makes me feel slightly better about myself, though my back still hurts because I lack core strength.

    Anyway, I’ve been having similar thoughts to yours just this week. Entering middle age is interesting.

    I don’t think we all want political and economic equity. A good number of people believe hierarchy is a positive. The healthy and Right way to organize humans (and everything else). These people tend, in the U.S., to identity as Conservatives.

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