The pace of change in today’s society is nothing compared to what it was in the late 19th century

9780140447835On occasion, you’ll read these polemics that are all about the dizzying pace of change in the modern world and about how life is accelerating and technology is constantly up-ending everything all the time time always oh my god! But I don’t buy it. It seems to me that the pace of technological and societal change has, if anything, slowed down over the last century. I mean, the internet is a fantastic mind-blowing thing, but you know what else is pretty spectacular? Refrigerators. Cars. Air conditioning. Electric lights. The radio. Movies. Cameras. Indoor plumbing, Hot water. Ready-to-wear clothing. Compulsory secondary education. The telephone. Magazines.

I could go on. I’m literally just looking around my apartment and naming things I see that we still use which are, fundamentally, pretty unchanged from when they were introduced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Over the course of maybe fifty years, the tenor and pace of life (at least in the West) was radically altered. It wasn’t just about being able to do different things. It wasn’t just about being able to see at night or being warm in the winter, it was that everything about life was completely different. You didn’t work for yourself anymore, instead you worked for an employer. You didn’t have arranged marriages, instead you chose your own spouse. You didn’t grow your food or make your clothes, you bought them. It’s all pretty amazing.

Anyway, all of these reflections are apropos of Emile Zola’s Au Bonheur Des Dames (often translated as The Lady’s Delight). I love Emile Zola. He had to me, one of the purest and most honest projects in all of literature. He was simply going to sit down and write about every single aspect of life in the France of the Second Empire. And, to my eyes, he came closer to doing that–to being truly universal–than any other author I’ve ever read. For instance, I’ve read Nana (about actresses and prostitutes), L’Assommoir (about small tradespeople), Germinal (about mineworkers), The Earth (farmers), The Debacle (soldiers), Bete Humaine (train engineers and conductors), The Belly of Paris (grocers and food vendors), and The Masterpiece (painters).

And in each of them, the main enjoyment stems from his careful descriptions of daily life. Like, yeah, I do just want to know what a Paris meat market was like in 1860. That’s pretty interesting. Even today, you don’t often find novels that care about the details of ordinary human environments. Where novels do focus on setting, they’re often about strange or bizarre places. You’ll read a novel that’s all about the savage beauty of the mountains, but when the protagonist goes back to their apartment, that eye for beauty shuts itself down and everything becomes sketchy and bleak. Zola wasn’t like that. He had the rare ability to see the drama in everything.

His other artistic virtue lies in the brute vitality of his protagonists. They’re often not very intelligent (at least in the novels I’ve read) or self-reflective. Frequently, they’re doomed to failure. Sometimes they’re dishonest or selfish or corruptible. These aren’t–or at least aren’t always–the virtuous poor. They succumb to laziness and to alcoholism. They sometimes abandon their families or commit terrible crimes. But through it all there’s always a powerful human-ness. For instance, the book I’m reading is about Denise Baudu, a salesgirl at a massive lady’s clothing store in Paris. And the circumstances she undergoes are pretty brutal. Everyone in the store hates her and is conspiring to make sure she doesn’t get any good customers, which, since she works on commission, means that she has zero money. And her brother is bleeding her dry, constantly coming to her with emergency requests for more money, leaving her afraid that he’ll end up dead if she refuses. And her only other family is her uncle, who won’t speak to her because the store where she works is slowly driving his store out of business.

But even though she’s at the nexus of these powerful social forces, you can still feel her trying to make a good life for herself. For instance, there’s an extended sequence where she and her one friend in the store go on a weekend trip and tromp through the fields and watch the boatsmen ply the river and go out to dine at a restaurant. There’s the scene where, flush with a regular paycheck for the first time, she finally comes down the stairs in a new pair of boots. She’s not just a symbol. She’s not just an illustration. But she’s not a hero either. Zola is good at constantly shifting from the grand scale to the petit scale. He’s good at letting you know that, okay, yes, there is this new thing–the department store–and it is a massive innovation that is going to destroy life as we know it, and there’s nothing anyone can do to escape from those changes. But, at the same time, there’s also this person, who’s just a human being that’s trying to make a good life for herself.

Wrap-Up Season 2011: Predictably Good Books, Part Two

The Informers by Bret Easton Ellis – This fall I visited LA for the first time in my adult life, and found myself utterly entranced by the place. Before this year, LA had never really existed for me as a distinct place, where people lived…a place where I could go. If I thought of it at all, I thought of it as looking a little like the suburbs of San Jose (but, like, a little bigger). But it is not like that at all. It’s a diffuse, unnavigable mega-city. It’s what Dhaka or New Delhi would look like if they were first world cities. Not only does its sheer size and scale make it much different from anything else in America, it’s also a place that’s been systematically perverted by the influence of the entertainment industry, which shows even in extremely superficial ways (like how attractive everyone in LA is). The Informers is a fix-up collection by Bret Easton Ellis where he briefly and mechanically revisits all of his normal Ellisian tropes: bisexuality, nihilism, drug use, pop music, late-night diners, and sadistic murders. I think the plotlessness and lack of cohesion springing from the format (a fix-up is a collection of loosely linked short stories) actually make the work a lot more interesting, because it means that the only thing to focus on is the scenery.

Something Happened by Joseph Heller – I really liked Catch-22, when I finally got around to reading it last year. This book is nothing like Catch-22. For starters, it’s not really very funny. It’s a book that’s hard to describe. It’s a 1950s businessman (basically Don Draper) monologuing for 200,000 words about his life (how he’s driven to cheat on his wife, how his daughter hates him, how he’s worried that his son is growing to grow up and lose his vitality). The reminisces are not chronological and none of the book takes place in scene, except for short snippets of reported dialogue. The narration is manic and insane. It sounds like a man ranting to you while under the influence of heavy doses of amphetamines. But it’s also hypnotic. It’s a man trying his best (and failing) to gain some understanding of his own life.

Dropsie Avenue by Will Eisner – A pretty awesome graphic novel covering two hundred or so years in the life of a street in the Bronx. You see ethnic groups jockey with each other and then move on, giving way to the next group. You see the architecture and the zoning and the economics of the place change. In its portrayal of any given era and group it might be a little simplified (and sometimes seems to come close to stereotyping), but the epic sweep of the thing makes the book worthwhile.

Wrap Up Season 2011: Surprisingly Good Books, Part One

When I compelled my list of surprisingly good books, I was so overwhelmed that I decided to pare it down to only 10-15 that I really had something to say about, and also to not discuss any books that I had previously blogged about. Thus, these books are not necessarily the best ones I read this year, they’re just the ones I felt like I could write 100-300 words about.  The second part of this post will come tomorrow.

Stumbling On Happiness by Daniel Gilbert – This title makes the book sound like a self-help guide or a memoir, but it’s actually a sedate work of science popularization. This is a nonfiction book about why we’re unable to accurately assess what things will make us happy (and then achieve those things) because our brains basically our imaginations are not very accurate. When we are asked to imagine how we will feel in a given situation, we feel like come up with a pretty good simulacrum of that feeling, but actually, we’re totally wrong. In fact, the book is kind of pessimistic about whether human beings will ever (or should ever) overcome these failures of imagination. However, the most important thing to know about this book is that it’s one of the best written works of non-fiction I’ve ever read. There’s a certain non-fictional tone—one exemplified by humorous political books (like those of Michael Moore or Al Franken) or by travelogues for sedate people (like those of Bill Bryson) or science popularization books for teens (like those of Isaac Asimov) – that I find to be very cutesy and twee, and this book has a tone which is very much like that tone, except it is exciting and sharp. On a prose level, the book continually upsets your expectations (and it is very funny). It was only after finishing the book that I read (on the back flap) that the author (who is a professor of psychiatry at Harvard) has also published stories in Asimov’s Science Fiction. Does anyone know anything about that? I would really like to read those stories.

 Tell Them Who I Am by Elliot Liebow – The author of this book was an anthropologist (the head of the NIH’s National Institute for Mental Health) who was diagnosed with terminal cancer, quit his job, realized he wasn’t going to die, started volunteering at a women’s homeless shelter, and ended up writing a participant-observer study about the shelter’s homeless women. It’s a very powerful and fascinating book about the day to day lives of these homeless womens: how they spend their time, their friendships, their romantic relationships, their monetary situation, and all kinds of other stuff. As a bonus, it is annotated with footnotes by two of the women (so they’re literally speaking at you and sometimes disagreeing with the author). It was really cool. I don’t know how generalizable the study is, but it’s always cool to get a glimpse into someone’s life, even if it’s just twenty women who lived on the streets, twenty years ago.

 Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington – When I read this memoir, last December, I had tons of things to say about it. I had reams and reams of quotations marked out for the blog post I was gonna write. But then my Kindle crashed and I never got around to it. The first third of this book is about Booker T. Washington’s own struggle. It’s a fascinating portrait of a person and a people who are only one generation out of slavery (Washington was born a slave and was freed by the thirteenth amendment when he was like three or four). Washington got his education at a black teacher’s college and then went to go run his own college (The Tuskeegee Institute) and develop his own theories regarding the further socioeconomic development of his race (which are set out in the rest of the book). It’s well known that Washington did not view things the way that people do now. In some ways, his writings are kind of unbelievable. At one point he claims that he had never had a single experience of racism from a white Southerner. I wonder to what extent he self-censored himself because he knew he was writing for a mostly white audience. Still, there’s a tremendous moral force in his writing. In my recollection, every page of the book contained something exciting, beautiful, or startling. He reminds me of Gandhi (another great man who had some very simplistic views).

 The Organization Man by William Whyte – This was Whyte’s 1950s indictment of the way that modern American men were becoming homogenous and risk-averse. This is truly an obsolete document. In 2011, there are no more Organization Men. Nowadays, no one has job security. Nowadays, sucking up the boys upstairs and expressing only the right opinions and living in only the right neighborhoods will not get you nearly the rewards that it gave you in the fifties. Still, this book is very interesting as a historical document. It’s a portrait of what can happen to the human spirit in a very affluent society. I have no doubt that if the good days ever come again (and, economically speaking, the fifties were very good days, with huge growth in wages, GDP, and opportunity), that we will start to see some of these conformity pressures once more.

 Germinal by Emile Zola – I kept meaning to write a comprehensive post about Emile Zola. So far this year, I’ve read six of his novels, and each one has impressed me with its grotesqueness and power. Germinal is the one that I read first, though, and it’s still my favorite. This novel is about a labor strike at a coal mine in 1860s France. Most of Zola’s novels are about how human beings are horrible and wicked and love to do terrible things to each other, but they paint that world in tremendously grand and heroic strokes. The typical Zola is a series of grand set-pieces: one chapter will be a mob riot; another will be a series of workers excavating for coal deep underground; another will be three morally bankrupt children picking flowers. He’s one of the few naturalist-type authors who is as exciting for his artistry as for his content. No one writes crowd scenes like Zola. And, although it still ends in death and despair, Germinal is actually a lot more hopeful than most of Zola’s novels. At least this one shows the heroism in united action (although the typical sexual and moral sordidness of Zola-world is also on display).