Recently, I have been reading. And when I finish reading and I think of what to do next, I read some more. It is an action born out of leisure, boredom, futility, an attempt to seek fulfillment. It’s too late for me to be giving you summer reading recommendations (and I am not sure whether or not I would assume that kind of responsibility), but it’s not too late for me to share a few of the things I have been reading with you. I have been thinking a lot about the kind of “sharing industrial complex” we have formed through social media, it is almost as if our identities are crafted by and through the things we share with other people: photographs; status updates; tweets; the things we read, eat, and write. In sharing our lives publicly, we make statements about our politics, our race, our class, and our education among other things, and in the process it’s difficult not to become disillusioned by the notion that it is all a kind of posturing–something we do in order to assert that we are a particular kind of person, a particular kind of people. At the same time, there is something delightful about sharing, about allowing others into our world so that they might catch a glimpse our lives and our minds. Taking a break from graduate school has afforded me the rare luxury of reading for leisure, and among the things I want to share with you are short discussions and excerpts from the things that I read. They are not recommendations so much as invitations to think about how we think about things. I am going to start with a selection of four books that I have read this summer,
(NB: In my ideal world (which I inhabit at least 90 percent of the time), there is a small but devotedly curious community of people who want to know what I think, what kinds of culture I consume, my most quotidian habits. Although closer investigation would embarrassingly reveal that my thoughts are senseless and my taste questionable at best, I am compelled to experiment with different modes of articulation. This is one of them.
The Bluest Eye and Sula, Toni Morrison
When writing an ethnography of my college faculty dining room for my first anthropology project, one of my favorite Bard professors told me a story about how when Toni Morrison was a writer-in-residence at Bard in the late-eighties, no one would sit with her at lunch. She said that others told her they wouldn’t know what to say to Toni Morrison, but that she knew it was racism. Or rather, she corrected herself “there was racism to it.”
After many years of having been assigned Toni Morrison on high school and college syllabi, I am finally now making my way through her extensive body of work–I’ve started with her first two novels The Bluest Eye (1970) and Sula (1973). But reading Toni Morrison is difficult, because although reading her feels important, at the end of each novel, I inevitably feel a loss words. Rather than mangle more words, and do Morrison any more injustice than is strictly necessary, here are a few excerpts:
The Bluest Eye:
“Dolls we could destroy, but we could not destroy the honey voices of our parents and aunts, the obedience in the eyes of our peers, the slippery light in the eyes of our teachers when they encountered the Maureen Peals of the world. What was the secret? What did we lack? Why was it important? And so what? Guileless and without vanity, we were still in love with ourselves then. We felt comfortable in our skins, enjoyed the news tha our senses released to us, admired our dirt, cultivated our scars, and could not comprehend this unworthiness. Jealousy we understood and thought natural–a desire to have what somebody else had; but envy was a strange new feeling for us. And all the time we knew that Maureen Peal was not the Enemy and not worthy of such intense hatred. The Thing to fear was the Thing that made her beautiful and not us.
Sula (a conversation between Nel and Sula):
“You still know everything, ain’t you?”
“I don’t know everything, I just do everything.”
“Well, you don’t do what I do.”
“You think I don’t know what your life is like just because I ain’t living it? I know what every colored woman in this country is doing.”
“Dying. Just like me. But the difference is they dying like a stump. Me, I’m going down like one of those redwoods. I sure did live in this world.”
“Really? What have you got to show for it?
“Show? To who? Girl, I got my mind. And what goes on it it. Which is to say, I got me.”
“Lonely, ain’t it?”
“Yes but my lonely is mine. Now your lonely is somebody else’s. Made by somebody else and handed to you. Ain’t that something? A secondhand lonely.”
Extra Reading: The Radical Vision of Toni Morrison
Middlemarch, George Eliot
The reason Middlemarch was on my reading list at all is because in 2012 I read an essay by Zadie Smith in a book of collected essays, Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays, I purchased from the clearance rack at Oblong Books in Rhinebeck, New York. I haven’t revisited that piece since I first read it, so I am reluctant to say what it was about Smith’s review that drew me to Middlemarch, but in mid-July I found myself in Jackson, Mississippi for nearly ten days and having finished both books I’d brought with me within the first four days of my stay. I wasn’t really in a position to make it to a library or bookstore and the ebook version of Middlemarch, cost $0.99, and there is no better time will present itself to reading an 850-page tome than being house-ridden in the thick of a Mississippi summer.
I have not revisited the Zadie Smith essay since having read Middlemarch, and I have otherwise done as little outside reading about the novel as possible because then I become obsessed about knowing as much about the novel as possible before I am willing my state my own observations. The historical realism in Middlemarch is basically lost on me because I don’t know enough about nineteenth century British history to comment on it, but it does strike me as an anthropology of provincial British economy, sociality, and culture during the Industrial Revolution. In Eliot’s extensive cast of characters, and in their various pursuits and dilemmas, we are able to gain insight about the values, interests, and preoccupations of villagers in rural Britain during the 1830s. But it is not the ethnography of Middlemarch that delighted me so much as it was that the novel offered me a a kind of reprieve during “wedding season”–the five month season between late April and early October during which heteronormative couples flaunt their impending matrimony. George Eliot is actually quite generous in her humanity, so although I do not think that the unhappy marriages of Dorothea (Brooke) Casaubon and Tertius Lydgate that anchor this novel’s plot are truly intended as reproaches to the institution of marriage, I found myself momentarily relishing in their discontent, as proof that marriage is not necessary–and is often detrimental towards–a lifetime of happiness. In fact, one of the most pervasive feminist criticisms of the novel has to do with the fact that the novel’s feminist heroine ultimately becomes a wife and mother to a husband with political ambitions.
My initial reading of Middlemarch leaves me unsure whether or not the novel is a feminist text in so far as it treats desires, interests, and ambitions of its wide cast of female characters. It does strike me, however, that it is a feminist text more so because of it’s wide and varied cast of female characters, all of whom–despite their imperfections–are treated with a great deal of humanity and agency.
Since my discussion of this novel has not even begun to do it justice, I’ll leave you with one of many kernels of Eliot’s wisdom:
“…but to most mortals there is a stupidity which is unendurable and a stupidity which is altogether acceptable–else, indeed, what would become of social bonds?”
Extra Reading: Middlemarch and Me
Extra Listening: In Theory Podcast Episode 5 – Wedding Industrial Complex Bells are Ringing
Dear Committee Members, Julie Schumacher
This book is about letters of recommendation. Do letters of recommendation infuriate you? Frustrate you? Bore you? Mystify you? As a person who has written no letters of recommendation, but has requested many–for graduate school, for college, for fellowships/scholarships, for jobs–these are among the few things I feel towards letters of recommendation. I have not found the adequate words to describe all of the other many feelings I feel about letters of recommendation yet, but to give you an ideaI feel similarly about letters of recommendation as I do about the American airline industry.
Dear Committee Members is a novel comprised entirely of the letters of recommendation Jason Fitger, writer and professor of literature at Pace University, writes for various people in his life. Among others these people include his ex-lover; colleagues in his English department at Pace University; a host of undergraduate students requesting recommendation letters for graduate/law/medical school, generic corporate sector jobs; and a favorite, but advisee–a graduate student named Darren Browles whose “novel-in-progress [is] is a retelling of Melville’s Bartleby (but in which the eponymous character is hired to keep the books at a brothel, circa 1960, just outside Las Vegas)”. The letters Fitger writes on behalf of Darren Browles, a graduate student who has lost his funding and is desperately seeking opportunities to continue pursuing increasingly unrealistic dreams of becoming a writer, form the narrative arc of this book. Fitger reaches out prominent figures in the literary of the world–directors of writers residency programs and literary agents he shared seminar tables with in his own graduate writing program–in hopes of securing a fellowship, a book deal, or even a spot in a PTSD rehabilitation program that will allow Browles the funding and time required to complete his novel. On behalf of Browles, he solicits university fellowships from his ex-lover, the Associate Director of the Pace University Fellowships Office, and clerical positions at the university’s law school from his ex-wife, who is director of admissions there. In Schumacher’s rendering, the letter of recommendation becomes a genre in and of itself, guided by an almost universal form and decorum. In each letter, Fitger violates, and mocks, the genre by inflecting each letter with a sense of humor, by inserting information about his personal life, by calling attention to the banality and tediousness of the practice all together.
Obviously though, Dear Committee Members is not ONLY about how letters of recommendation are not only pervasive in academia (as well as in other professional and corporate sectors). The novel is satirical and humorous, but it is also a critique of the contemporary capitalism and neoliberalism that not only guides university agendas (Pace University, where Fitger works, is cutting funding to all humanities programs but is installing a rock climbing gym with the support of a private sponsor), but also our own ambitions and aspirations. Anyone embroiled in academia for any period of time will find this to be a deeply familiar text.
Modern Romance, Aziz Ansari and Eric Klinenberg
You are probably nothing like me. Your weekly exercise regimen probably doesn’t include riding your bike four miles on suburban thoroughfares that don’t have bike lanes to the closest YMCA or taking hours long walks through suburban subdivisions, with cicadas and white-tailed deer to remind you that less than a generation ago, this was all farmland and forest. Modern Romance is popular social science inflected with Ansari’s sense of humor. Graduate school and volumes upon volumes of academic social scientific writing have made it impossible for me to ingest popular sociology and anthropology, but the in its audio form, Modern Romance, narrated by Aziz Ansari himself, is entertaining at its worst, and at best offers vignettes about contemporary dating and romance that might mirror your own experience.
The best piece of information I have gathered from Modern Romance so far is that after its phenomenal successes in creating a mobile dating application for gay men, Grindr spent years trying to create a similar model for heterosexual couples. They were faced with a number of logistical difficulties–in particular they needed to figure out how to make a mobile dating application appealing to heterosexual women, who were likely to be reluctant about sharing their location and personal information with men they did not know. In 2012, the creators of Grindr released an ultimately unsuccessful mobile dating application for heterosexual couples called “Blendr”. It’s imminently clear to me that the primary cause of failure for a mobile dating application called Blendr is its name. In retrospect, doesn’t it seem fairly intuitive that an application whose name implies the mixing of two objects together with an electric machine would be unsuccessful?
In the spirit of “modern romance,” to wrap things up I’ll offer you a selection of some dudes OKCupid has said I might be well-matched with:
- A twenty-two year old undergraduate at Brown University, who is willing to admit that “he is a frat boy, but not a douchebag”;
- the disclaimer is truly comforting
- The Political Science graduate student who says he spends typical Friday nights “going to clubs/bars/parties and studying the interactions of people in the same way that anthropologists study primitive tribes in remote areas of New Guinea” (he would also like you to message him if you are interesting in “exploring the tantra”);
- four words: DISCIPLINARY APPROPRIATION IS NOT OKAY
- A Rhode Island native whose profile picture features him posing with former Providence mayor Buddy Cianci–convicted felon and alleged racist;
- i think this photo tells you everything you need to know
- A person from my group of high school friends, with whom I haven’t spoken in several years, but is home for the summer
- i need two hands to count the number of my friends he’s kissed
- No fewer than two high school crushes, both of whom have made it fairly clear they aren’t interestedl
- That one guy who stole a 2 liter bottle of Bacardi Gold Rum from your Thanksgiving House Party in 2009;
- a match made in heaven.
The idea of “summer reading” has me thinking a lot about seasonal reading. Why do we only make summer reading lists, but no fall, spring, or winter reading lists. I’d love to know how other people organize their reading throughout the year. TELL ME, TELL ME, TELL ME.