A Fan of Private Life: On Social Media, Novels, & Tuning out

I am a fan of private life.  Lolling in a hammock…making gazpacho…reading the latest book by Richard Russo.   None of that is especially personal, but I can’t help notice that private life is increasingly driven and threatened by electronic devices.  All that meaningless data at Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram is eaten up by bots, advertisers, and given to the Russians.  “She reads Dostoevsky’s Demons. She’s a Democrat.”

Knock yourself out.

If only we could turn back the clock. How far we’ve come from those days when every liberal group, from unions to anti-war protesters to environmental activists, worried about a hostile co-worker’s eavesdropping or FBI infiltration.  Now we are trusting and post everything online.  Timothy Leary’s hipster philosophy in the ’60s was:  “Turn on, tune in, drop out.”  I would revise that to “Turn off (your phones), tune in (to reality), drop out (from the electronic-fantasy community at least a few hours a day).

If I were an advice columnist,  I’d emphasize the following private-life-enhancing “Do’s and “Don’t’s”

  • Do read many, many novels (a study at Emory University found that reading fiction improved brain function and empathy)
  • Don’t read only on tablets or computers (devices with access to the internet and email are distracting)
  • Do take social media breaks (a study shows that comparing yourself to  Facebook friends causes depression).
  • Don’t delude yourself that your “followers” are your best friends, because only those annoying people in real life will be there in an emergency)

Every age has its bête noire: in the mid-20th century, it was TV, not the internet.  I grew up in a TV-centric household:  we watched soap operas, football games on Thanksgiving,  and I can still sing the Patty Duke Show theme song.  My husband and I watched Seinfeld  so many times we know the dialogue.  He was allowed to watch very little TV when he was growing up, but bizarrely he knows more TV trivia than I do.

Most of what I know is gleaned from novels.  I am a great fan of novels.  I don’t care much for following the news; I want to know how people think and feel, and fiction writers capture that much more veraciously than  journalists.  And novelists know the issues.  I was fascinated by Doris Lessing’s The Four-Gated City, the last novel in her Children of Violence series, when the heroine Martha Quest muses on how TV has changed the oral narratives of working-class Londoners, who used to tell stories instead of sitting passively in front of TV.   Now I can’t say TV stopped any of the women in my family from chatting, in person, on the phone, in letters, or on Christmas cards.  It was chat, chat, chat, chat.  But I am sure TV did something to our brains.

This isn’t to say I wasn’t influenced by silly trends in non-electronic culture.  I briefly adored chanting “Power to the people” at protests–and then I learned that People, once they got Power, were no better than Politicians.  I once bought a pair of ostrich cowgirl boots at Banana Republic, which were useless in the snow, and didn’t go very well with my office dresses either.  And I tried to memorize The Mikado before a headmaster’s party where the posh teachers sat around the piano singing Gilbert and Sullivan.  Resentfully, I did Gilbert and Sullivan homework for these excruciating parties.  May I  say that nothing in my reading life or TV-watching life prepared me for it?

All in all, I agree with Linda Radlett in Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love.  She  left her bourgeois banker husband for Christian, a rebellious aristocrat and communist, and though she loves him dearly, she finds the communists very tiring and serious.

You know, being a Conservative is much more restful,” Linda said to me  once in a moment  of confidence, when she was being unusually frank about her life, “though one must remember that it is bad, not good.  But it does take place within certain hours, and then finish, whereas Communism seems to take up all one’s life.”

I am happy to say that being a Democrat is restful, too.  I take it up at certain hours, right before I go voting, and then forget about it.  I would be much more anxious if I voted for the Green Party, because I’d agonize about wasting my vote.

Well, we must blend our electronic life (and not spend too much time on it) with our private life (to which we must devote more time).

What are your pet peeves about our electronic age?

Are You a Ray Bradbury Fan? The Martian Chronicles and a Music Video

An illustration from the Folio Society edition

Are you a Ray Bradbury fan?

Rereading his SF classic, The Martian Chronicles, is like time-travel to the future of space travel as imagined in the 1940s. The atmosphere is strictly pulp-fiction, but the politics and psychology are historically-based and perspicacious.  In this brilliant collection of linked short stories, published in 1950, Bradbury imagines the consequences of American colonization of Mars.

Bradbury poses the questions, What is real and what is unreal? as he depicts the illusions and disillusions of the colonists. The first crew of Americans on Mars are dismissed by Martians as psychotics, because the mentally ill on Mars can project visual and sensory hallucinations.   A later group of Americans has the illusion of walking through Midwestern towns, joyously but with dire consequences.  And the Martians gradually disappear and are forgotten.

A friend recently sent me the link to Rachel Bloom’s 2010 video, “Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury,” which was a finalist for the 2011 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form.  Bloom, a comedian, singer, writer, and the ultimate Bradbury groupie, is co-creator and star of the TV show, Crazy Ex Girlfriend.  This video is hysterically funny!

In Which “War and Peace” Tips Over the Bike

“War and Peace” in my bicycle helmet one summer!

Odd though this may sound, War and Peace is a comfort read.  I reread it every year.  There is nothing intellectual about this classic, despite Tolstoy’s occasional philosophising.   I adore the Rostovs and the Bolkonskys (especially Masha/Mary/Marie),  whether they are gossiping in the drawing room or riding horses in the confusion of battle.  And what about the  flight of the residents from Moscow when Napoleon and the French are at the gates?  Very suspenseful!

In my family it is a joke the number of times I’ve read W&P. “Please read something else.”  A few years ago, when my husband saw me loading the Vintage Classics edition into the bike pannier before a 30-mile ride, he said,”That’s why you have back problems.”

I was blithe.  “It’ll be fine!”

But he was right. I hate to admit it, though.  At four pounds and 1,273 pages, W&P tipped over the bike every time we stopped for a break. The trick was to lean it against a tree and then lean against it bodily before it toppled.

“I told you so.”

And so, quite sensibly, on the next ride I switched to the Oxford paperback, which only weighs 2.1 pounds.

Recently I decided to reread War and Peace.  I took it with me on a bike ride again:  the Oxford.

But am I losing my strength?

I planned to bike to a park, choose a nice bench in the shade, and read for an hour.  The problem?  THE WEST WIND WAS GUSTING AT 23 MPH!  I was out in the open and it was a struggle.  Finally I reached the woods.

I sat on a bench and the wind blew the hair across my face.  I had one barrette, and though I pinned my hair back as far as possible, it kept escaping and whipping into my eye.

And when I stopped for a restroom break at a convenience store, the bike tipped over.  Crash! The wind, the big purse, a water bottle, a thermos of tea, and W&P.  It capsized!

So I sat down on the sidewalk and drank a Diet Coke.

Really, I do think I’m losing my strength.  Or is it just the wind?

I’ll have to take my tablet next time and read the e-book. I wanted to get back to the book, but…

Jane Austen and Juvenal: It Is Difficult Not to Write Satire

Either the sparkling Jane Austen or the cynical Juvenal could have said the following:  “It is difficult not to write satire.”  The  Roman satirist Juvenal wrote it ( Satire I):   difficile est saturam non scribere. And yet the 19th-century English novelist and second-century Roman satirist have something in common–the wickedest tongues in their respective languages.

Their spheres of expertise are very different: Austen writes novels about women’s lives, satirizing the tedium of domesticity and the trials of marrying off women in restricted class-appropriate circles; while Juvenal, having survived Domitian’s reign of terror, lampoons the decline of morals and Roman decadence, daring to name  only dead men as examples.  Austen delves subtly beneath the surface, so that sometimes it takes a second or third reading to catch the subversiveness.

Whom do I prefer?  Sometimes one, sometimes the other.  As on a small sketchpad, Austen delineates women’s social lives, their walks and conversations; as in a painting by Bosch, Juvenal derides a colorful cast of Romans, among them women who poison husbands, gamblers who leave their purses but drag a safe instead to the gaming table, and gluttons who eat a whole boar and then die in the bath with an undigested peacock in their stomach.

The form of the satire in dactylic hexameter allows Juvenal occasionally to generalize at the end of a long catalogue of vices. Here is such a generalization in my rough translation: “There will be nothing worse that Posterity can add to our corruption; our descendants will do the same and crave the same depravity; and every vice has stood on the precipice.” (N.B. “… vice can go no further.)

Do you think of Austen as a satirist balanced on a precipice, shifting between a pretense of ladylike reserve and a pointed calculation of “outrageous fortune”(s)?  When I read Emma for the first time, I deemed it a  satire of love and finance. But Austen is more subtle than that: she has a satiric side, and a moral side, and no one better understands than she the serpentine relationship between love and money, and the cryptic  conventions that form the bond between men and women.  Her heroines want to marry, and,  yes, they get their men, but what men!  Handsome, clever, and rich Emma must eat humble pie before her snobbish, hypercritical, much older neighbor, Mr. Knightley, proposes. In Helena Kelly’s Jane Austen, The Radical, she does not dismiss the possibility that Mr. Knightley, who has a passion for “enclosure” of land, wants to marry Emma partly “for all those extra acres, fenced and ditched for free, and the £30,000 besides.”  And certainly I have always thought that their marriage would be made in hell.

Money matters in Austen’s world.   In her first novel, Sense and Sensibility,  Austen begins by describing the financial difficulties of the Dashwoods.  The Dashwood sisters and their mother must leave their comfortable home, because their father managed his finances badly and their half-brother inherited the estate. Now they depend on the kindness of a distant relative, who allows them to live in a cottage on his estate.

Whom will the girls marry?  It is more urgent than ever, now that they are poor.  Elinor assumes her boyfriend Edward Ferrars will propose, but when he does not even visit, she is unable to parse the world of men.  Ferrars has lied to her, a very important lie, we learn.  And how sensible is Elinor, even though she is more sensible than most? Like other girls, she has not been educated in finance, nor does she have any control over money, and could not have suspected any deception because of it.

Like Elinor, Marianne is unable to parse the thinking of men.  When she twists her ankle while running blithely down a hill, a typical Marianne-ish entertainment, a handsome stranger named Willoughby carries her home.  They fall in love:  they love art, novels, poetry..  They have many common tastes.  Unfortunately Willoughby drops her after paying her very marked attentions.

Marianne is a strong character, but she makes herself sick with sensibility and languishes with a real illness after she takes a walk in the rain, mourning Willoughby.   In Lucy Worsley’s witty biography, Jane Austen at Home, she explains the disease of “sensibility”  that afflicts Marianne.  Worsley writes,

Known as The English Malady, ‘sensibility’ had by the middle of the eighteenth century become a fashionable affliction for the well off. It was a classy kind of problem from which to suffer, for your nerves only became dangerously ‘sensitive’ if you had plenty of leisure time, and therefore lots of money, to indulge them.  But if you did want to appear delicate, full of sensibility, refined, it was a good idea to start by reading novels. And as people started to read more novels, with their high-blown, elevated notions about love and romance, they actually began to write to their  own real-life lovers in the same sensitive, romantic terms.

But Helena Kelly, author of Jane Austen, The Secret Radical, interprets sensibility differently.  Depending on whether Austen wrote Sense and Sensibility in the late 18th century or early 19th centurey,  Austen may have been alluding to Wollstonecraft’s The Vindication of the Rights of Women. Wollstonecraft writes that men’s  power is “reason,” while women’s only power is “sensiblity,”  i.e., having the accomplishments that help her attract men and marry.

Mary Wollstonecraft writes,

 I lament that women are systematically degraded by receiving the trivial attentions, which men think it manly to pay to the sex, when, in fact, they are insultingly supporting their own superiority. It is not condescension to bow to an interior. So ludicrous, in fact, do these ceremonies appear to me, that I scarcely am able to govern my muscles, when I see a man start with eager, and serious solicitude to lift a handkerchief, or shut a door, when the ladycould have done it herself, had she only moved a pace or two.

Reading Wollstonecraft, I am surprised to recognize that her words still apply. Think of the difference between professional training (business, law) and the liberal arts (languages, literature, the arts). I so value the  liberal arts that I will make a case for sensibility over sense, but I admit our sensibility  prepared us mostly for (women’s?) lower-tier income jobs, teaching, paralegal work, PR,  or freelance writing. I omitted my master’s degree from a few job applications, after learning that  men with bachelor’s degrees weren’t at all interested in hiring women with more education.   I wonder where women are today on the “sensibility” question?  Surely more are in the professions.  I prefer sensibility, but sense–and cents–also matter.

And yet without sensibility are we human? One wonders when one sees people walking up and down the street looking at their phones, doubtless asking Alexa/Siri for directions.

As Juvenal says, difficile est saturam non scribere.

What I Just Read, What I’m Reading, & What I Want to Read

WHAT I JUST READ: Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate.  This witty novel made me laugh so hard I didn’t scrawl any notes, so here is a random quote from a savvy, sympathetic, witty gay character, Cedric Hampton. When he shows up at the narrator Fanny’s house with a “thin and ancient horse,” her horsey friend Norma Cozens  indignantly says it must be put down immediately or she will call the RSPCA. And didn’t he know he could have bought a hunter with that forty pounds?

“But, my dearest Mrs. Cozens, I don’t want a hunter.  It’s the last thing.  I’d be far too frightened.  Besides, look at the time you have to get up–I heard them the other night in the woods, half-past six.  Well, you know, I’m afraid it’s ‘up before seven dead before eleven’ with one.  No, I just wanted this special old clipper-clopper.  She’s not the horse to make claims on a chap.  She won’t want to be ridden all the time, as a younger horse might, and there she’ll be, if feel like having a few words with her occasionally.  But the great question now, which I came to tease practical Fanny with, is how to get her home?”

I prefer Mitford’s books to almost anything.  Why don’t her books have the same status as Middlemarch?

SPEAKING OF WHICH… The blogger Dolce Bellezza reports that she is co-sponsoring a Middlemarch readalong in May. Sounds like fun.  A couple of years ago I channeled my inner Dorothea Brooke and reread this classic, not my favorite Eliot, but it is her best book. Have you noticed how favorites (mine is Daniel Deronda) and bests don’t always coincide? I blogged about Middlemarch here.

WHAT I’M READING:  Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy.  Although I loved the first book in the Alexander trilogy, I’m finding this one a slog.  Will I finish it?

WHAT I WANT TO READ:  Lionel Shriver’s new collection of short stories and novellas, Property (here is an interview with her in The Guardian), and Rebecca Goldstein’s Plato at the Googleplex:  Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away.

Love in the Cotton Mills: Elizabeth Gaskell’s “North and South”

After you’ve read Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, whom do you read?   Well, the obvious answer is Anne Brontë, and there has been an Anne boom in recent years.  May I admit I’ve never admired Anne?

I prefer Elizabeth Gaskell, who is as earnest and intelligent as Charlotte if not as exotic as Emily. I recently reread her North and South, one of the great industrial novels of the 19th century; it is clearly influenced by Charlotte’s industrial novel, Shirley (which I posted about here).  Both novels are page-turners, written by women of conscience.  Earnest industrial politics, plus everybody falls in love with a mill owner!

Before I make a few comments about the romantic relationship in North and South, here’s the plot summary  via the book description:

North and South tells the story of Margaret Hale, a southerner newly settled in the northern industrial town of Milton, whose ready sympathy with the discontented millworkers sits uneasily with her growing attraction to the charismatic mill owner, John Thornton. The novel poses fundamental questions about the nature of social authority and obedience, ranging from religious crises of conscience to the ethics of naval mutiny and industrial action. Margaret’s internal conflicts mirror the turbulence that she sees all around her. This revised and expanded edition sets the novel in the context of Victorian social and medical debate and explores Gaskell’s subtle representations of sexual passion and communal strife.

Here’s why fans of Charlotte Bronte should read North and South.   It’s not just the industrial politics: it’s the relationship between beautiful, earnest Margaret Hale, the daughter of a minister who has lost his faith, resigned from the church, and moved his family to the industrial town of Milton, and earnest, sexy Mr. Thornton, the owner of a cotton mill. The tension between reluctant Margaret and wary Mr. Thornton recalls the sparring between Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester, with a dash of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.  And the name Mr. Thornton alone evokes Mr. Rochester, who lived at Thornfield Hall.

Adjustment to life in smoky Milton is arduous for the Hales. But Margaret befriends and is charitable to some of the workers, as a basket-bearing former minister’s daughter should.  She is, however, contemptuous of “men in trade,” as she characterizes Mr. Thornton, a mill owner who is a classics student of her father’s.  Neither she nor Mr. Thornton sees the other’s point of view: she insists (rightly) on the workers’ need for higher wages, but he explains (also rightly) that new economic demands make it impossible to raise wages now.  Then during a strike, when Margaret throws herself in front of him to prevent his being hit by a rock and is hit instead,  Mr. Thornton falls in love with her.  When he proposes the next day, she is furious and says his way of speaking shocks her, and “is blasphemous.”  Granted, she has already turned down one unwelcome marriage proposal, but her treatment of Mr. Thornton is outrageous.

“And the gentleman thus rescued is forbidden the relief of thanks!” he broke in contemptuously. “I am a man. I claim the right of expressing my feelings.”

“And I yielded to the right; simply saying that you gave me pain by insisting upon it,” she replied, proudly. “But you seem to have imagined, that I was not merely guided by womanly instinct, but”—and here the passionate tears (kept down for long—struggled with vehemently) came up into her eyes, and choked her voice—“ but that I was prompted by some particular feeling for you—you! Why, there was not a man—not a poor desperate man in all that crowd—for whom I had not more sympathy—for whom I should not have done what little I could more heartily.”

What a couple!  But North meets South, and eventually each educates and alters the thinking of the other.  And Gaskell also provides a fascinating look at Victorian factories and of communication between workers and owners.

A great book!

Does Reading Shape Moral Vision? Little Women and Don Quixote

My generation of women was raised on rock music and Louisa May Alcott. And the two are not as different as you think: they turned us into resistors of the status quo.  Alcott’s writing is more polished and pointed than rock lyrics, though:  Little Women is a transcendentalist classic, the first book I read that articulated issues of moral philosophy.  I loved it when I was seven, and I love it equally now.

Alcott’s best-selling 19th-century children’s classic is a brilliant, lively, and often riotously funny autobiographical novel about the coming-of-age of four sisters in the Civil War era.  She traces their history from girlhood through marriage, careers, and motherhood, and delineates the development of their ethics as well as character.  She lightly comments on moral philosophy, materialism, the role of women, education, etc., usually in a few lines of breezy dialogue.

Louisa, the daughter of the philosopher Bronson Alcott, came of age in Concord, Mass., where her neighbors were  Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, on whom she had a crush, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Margaret Fuller. As Susan Cheever points out in her book American Bloomsbury, “the Transcendentalists…were the original hippies.”  She adds, “The Concord group of Transcendentalists was part of a wave of liberalism and a passion for freedom that seemed to be sweeping through the new United States.”

And that liberalism and passion for freedom are reflected in Little Women.  Like the Alcotts, the four March sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, grow up in an impoverished household, where, encouraged by Marmee, they learn to value  social justice and charity.  In the second chapter, they reluctantly agree to give away their Christmas breakfast to Mrs. Hummel, a poor woman with a newborn baby and six children in a house with no fire or food.  And  the appalling poverty makes them glad they have done it.  That night, they merrily put on a play Jo has written, which is both entertaining and characteristic of their self-expression, complete with sword fights, forgotten lines, and,  at one point, the collapse of a makeshift tower.  Their friends shriek with laughter, and afterwards they eat ice cream, sent to the Marches by the wealthy man next door, who had heard about their charity to the Hummels.

But the four sisters struggle with poverty.  Charming Meg hates her job as a governess for a wealthy family, because it makes her envious of their leisure and beautiful clothes. Jo, an aspiring writer, wishes she were a boy, whistles, and says she hates “affected, niminy-piminy chits!”  She is equally dissatisfied with her day job as a companion for Aunt March.   Beth is sweet and agoraphobic, good at housework and the piano, too shy to go to school.  And Amy, who is as strong-willed as Jo, has a talent for art and is popular at school…until the pickled limes incident.  (You must read the book.)

Some bloggers (many seem to be British; maybe because our cultures are so different?) complain about Alcott’s “morals” and “preachiness.” This startles me, since I can’t think of any children’s classics that don’t explore moral issues: Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess, E. Nesbit’s The Wouldbegoods, E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, Elizabeth George Speare’s The Witch of Blackbird Pond, John Verney’s Friday’s Tunnel,  and the list goes on.  For me, who read Alcott’s books as a child, these were as stimulating as I would later find Plato’s dialogues.

Years ago, a teacher friend and I agreed we were “raised on Louisa May Alcott.”  We thought it had made us see the world differently.  But did our students read her?  One day we did an informal poll in our classes:  who had read Little Women?  In my five classes of approximately 125 students, only three had read it.  In my friend’s four classes of approximately 100 students, two had read it.  That’s 2.2222222222222223 percent.  Isn’t that sad?  And I can only imagine it would be less today, in the day of Y.A. literature.

Does the reading of Little Women change you if you read it as a girl?  Well, perhaps.  My friend and I were both creative types who resisted the social trends and pressures.  Perhaps different generations of readers take different things from the classics?

God only knows.  But it is always good to read the classics!

WHO READS DON QUIXOTE?   A friend who teaches a non-credit grammar course at a community college recently tried to give away a copy of her favorite book, Don Quixote.  There were no takers.

Well, that’s teaching.

Then she asked if anyone would give a brief talk on a favorite book, and the answer was No.   Did anyone read books?  No.  Did anyone have books at home?  No.  Were they sure they didn’t want her extra copy of Don Quixote?  Yes.

Teaching remedial classes for students with deficiencies can be discouraging.  But, as I told her, you might as well keep your standards high, because this class is the only place they’ll ever hear of the Don.