Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Unpacking my library

I'm finally mostly unpacked, one of the last tasks being the organization of my library. I actually have fewer books to unpack this time than when I moved five years ago, since hundreds of books now reside in my on-campus office. However, without all my Early Modern books and my teaching books and my theory books (and with many more rooms in my home!), the task of ordering and bestowing the remainder is even more of a puzzle.

We don't have a room that can serve as a dedicated library, and I've taken a smallish room--the beautiful, sun-filled sleeping porch--as my office. My books might all fit in there, if I crammed bookcases against every available wall, but that doesn't seem to make sense; aside from the size of the room, there's no point in having Don DeLillo and August Wilson, much less Helen Fielding, hanging out in my workspace. In theory I could keep leisure reading in one place and scholarly reading in another, but that division isn't absolute. Is the Odyssey research, or leisure? How about Jonathan Swift? Or the Romantic poets (whom I hate, will not read for fun, will never need for my research, but need to keep as part of my library)? And what the hell do I do with my collection of books on jazz and Old Hollywood? Or my two dozen books on contemporary religion?

Since I'm by nature an organizer and a systematizer, I'm haunted by the belief that there's some perfect way to organize my books: easy and rational but also intellectually coherent. I know that this isn't so--and that whatever I do with my books, within a few months I'll be accustomed to where everything is and the underlying organization won't matter--but I still want to do things right.

So I sit on the floor, surrounded by books, interrogating them: what are you? How do you matter to me?

The organizational method that I continue to find the most satisfying is chronological. So with the exception of a few special or set-aside collections, everything else gets mixed together: literature and history, philosophy and social science, starting with the writings of the ancient world and continuing up through last year's best-sellers. The idea is that my bookshelves will chart patterns of intellectual and aesthetic development, influence and response--and for the most part they do. Still, chronology doesn't solve all my problems. Should Gibbon go next to Catullus, or next to Johnson? Does an author with a long career get all his books shelved next to each other, or should they be interleaved with those of his earlier and later contemporaries? Should national groupings be respected? (It might be reasonable to interleave works of Early American literature with those from 18th C. Britain, but what about continental Europe? Should Choderlos de Laclos and the Marquis de Sade really be next to Charles Brockden Brown?)

It's a pleasurable task, though, for exactly these reasons. I enjoy finding six totally dissimilar novels published within a year or two of each other, and thinking about the different issues and movements they're in conversation with. I like seeing which patterns emerge, and what different patterns I can create if I shuffle authors into a slightly different order, or place them in the context of an epochal event like WWII.

But then, that's how my brain works; I may have a rage for order, but I'm more a lumper than a splitter.

How do the rest of you solve your book organization problems?

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Something other, something different

Apologies for my extended absence here and elsewhere on the internet--moving plus a delayed Time Warner hookup means I've been reliant on an erratic stolen wireless connection.

Patchy as my internet access has been, I did follow the news from the New York state senate pretty much as it was breaking on Friday night. I'm very glad that my adopted home state has legalized gay marriage, and I do think it's an important step in the fight for gay and lesbian equality. However, I share some of the ambivalence that other people have expressed about turning marriage into the default standard for "loving, committed relationship." Let me be clear: I'm a big believer in marriage, and although I understand that some people can't get over the icky feelings that the patriarchal model of marriage produces in them, I don't personally believe that marriage is limited to or compromised by that model.

Nevertheless, though I want all my gay friends who want to get married to be able to do so, I don't totally love the way that gay marriage has gotten marketed as "gay people are exactly like you and me! they want exactly the same things that you want (or are supposed to want)! They're good consumers and citizens, and if only we allowed them to marry they wouldn't have to go to those scary nightclubs or wear weird clothes and stuff."

The flurry of news stories surrounding marriage equality has also made me brood more on the cover story from last week's NYT Magazine about the psychotherapeutic treatment of gay people who don't want to be gay. According to this story, an increasing number of mental health professionals--including those who are themselves openly and happily gay--are attempting methods of treatment for closeted patients that are not necessarily aimed at making those patients embrace and affirm their true gay selves. As one therapist notes, it's not always true that life would be happier or get better for them if they came out. When confronted with a deeply religious man who's attracted to other men, but who is married to and loves a woman, has children, and is utterly convinced homosexuality is wrong, their approach is basically to figure out how the patient sees himself: his orientation might indeed be homosexual while his identity is heterosexual. The therapist's job is to help him lessen the conflict between those two things so that he's able both to be honest with himself and others--and to lead more or less the (heterosexual) life he wants to lead.

I suppose one way of reading that story in light of New York's legalization of gay marriage is to see it only as evidence that we haven't come far enough yet: some day no one will be closeted, because even a conservative, religious kid who likes boys will be able to attend a theologically traditional church, meet another conservative boy there, and get married and have kids and coach little league and serve on the PTA.

I actually think the above scenario will eventually mostly come to pass (the most interesting chapter of the fight for gay equality will surely be the one that unfolds in the Bible Belt), but that's not my primary reading of the Times magazine article or why I've been brooding over it. I find the plight of the gays-who-don't-want-to-be-gays sad, but not because I think they're just deceiving themselves or that there's a direct line from gay liberation to self-actualization for men like those profiled in the story. (No female patients were profiled, nor was it suggested that conservative, religious lesbians confront the same problems--or even that they exist. There's probably more to say about that omission or assumption.)

What interests me about the article is the way it dramatizes the experience of identity conflict. Basically, what do you do when who you are doesn't make sense? What happens when two or more intensely-held aspects of your identity seem to be in conflict with one another? That may not be a universal problem, but it's not just a gay one or just a religious one. I've talked before about my fascination with personal experiences that don't seem tellable because they exist outside the normative categories of description or defy narrative logic. And though the gays-who-don't-want-to-be-gays might seem to be the exact opposite of the gays and lesbians who are so comfortable in their sexual identity that they don't want to get married, and who resist the enfolding or smothering of gay culture into the dominant culture, the two groups have at least this in common: they want something other, something different, and to be whom they imagine themselves to be--even when there's not an obvious or explicable path for them to follow or when that life comes at great personal cost.

We talk a lot in this country about going our own way and doing our own thing and having the "courage" to be different. But normalcy is hard, too, and the people who are different don't always look it. Being a functioning member of society without being a liar or a hypocrite is everyone's work, but there's no single path to that end. The men in the article have found a way that works for them, at least for now. Isn't that as much as any of us can hope for?

Friday, June 17, 2011

Transitional stage pleasures

We're mid-move (at least in the sense of having closed on our house, ordered appliances, and spent four straight days painting; no actual furniture has crossed either threshold), and as usual I'm half enjoying the endless series of change-of-address notifications that I have to fill out or call in. Each of the five moves I've made since I was eighteen has coincided with a major life change, so even the hassles of moving have always been colored by a sense of newness and anticipation.

With this particular move I'm also adding someone else's name as I update my addresses. And upgrading to a dual museum membership and having both of our names on the utility bill and magazine subscriptions makes the home-buying and the married-getting feel much more real. There our names are together, in print!

I'm keeping my name when we get married, and I have quite strong feelings about that choice. However, the new-life-stage pleasure of writing our names and shared address together makes me understand one reason why so many women are so eager to take their spouse's name.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Choosing polemic

This weekend I attended an ordination to the priesthood. Somewhat startlingly, it attracted protesters.

The candidate was someone I've mentioned briefly, a local history professor who has been serving as a transitional deacon at my parish. I like him a lot, and I'd never seen an ordination, so it seemed like a cool enough way to spend a couple of hours.

When Cosimo and I approached the cathedral and saw the cluster of people waving signs, I thought that I knew what it was about. The cathedral is the seat of the diocese, and the bishop presides at an ordination, so I supposed that any event with him in attendance was a magnet for those with some beef against the diocese or the church hierarchy. There'd been a lot of coverage about the closing of area churches and parochial schools, so that was my first guess. A distant second was that it was over some social issue.

I was wrong on both counts. These protesters were evangelical Protestants. And to the extent that they had a coherent objective, it seemed to be announcing that THERE IS NO SALVATION OUTSIDE OF THE BLOOD OF CHRIST, and WE MUST ALL BE BORN AGAIN. These seemed terribly strange declarations to be making to a bunch of random Catholics on a random Saturday morning. Were they always outside the cathedral? I wondered. Out of some generalized zeal?

But then we got into the church and saw the news media and the camera crews, and remembered: this is the ordination, to the Catholic priesthood, of a married man who used to be a Protestant minister. It's a bit of a deal.

And okay: such protests are tacky, rude, and pointless. But as a lover of polemic, I also thrill a little at them. It's especially thrilling to find people who are still fighting the Reformation fight (by which I mean, I suppose, people who actually have some sense of what the Reformation was about; nothing tops the fundy protesters I encountered at a Mormon pageant a few years ago, one of them shouting through a bullhorn about faith versus works).

And the fact is, it's hard not to see conversion, and especially the conversion of a clergyman, as anything other than a polemical statement. Those of us not carrying signs can talk a good game about different routes to God, different spiritual journeys, blah blah, but when your faith or your family is losing or gaining someone--especially someone smart and thoughtful and kind--it's hard to keep up that anodyne ecumenicism. It's hard not to see this as a considered judgment for or against your own belief system.

It turns out that not all of Father Deacon's children have converted (they range in age from about seven to about 24), and it's not even clear whether his wife has converted. He teaches at a college with a Protestant identity, and he still has ties to the churches he worked at in his former clerical life. All of his family members participated in the service, and lots of his colleagues and former colleagues were in attendance. And although they were all smiling and congratulatory, some of them also looked a little stunned when they were talking among themselves.

Toleration is a good thing. Ecumenicism is a good thing. But drawing distinctions and caring about distinctions--not just in religion, but also in politics, aesthetics, and so many other areas--means, on some level, making value judgments. Unlike the fundies outside, I'm sure no one inside the cathedral thought that anyone else was going to hell because of his or her religious beliefs. But even to claim that certain doctrines or practices are more useful, more accurate, or more meaningful than others is implicitly to critique the latter and the people who adhere to them.

I don't know how Father Deacon and his family have navigated all the changes in his life and identity, but I know it wasn't by singing "Kumbaya" and pretending that their differences weren't real. Because if polemic is a limited, reductive fantasy, so too is a vague universalism. If forced to choose, I'd choose polemic.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Getting It Published, Part 4

(For previous installments see here, here, and here.)

One night, midway through grad school, I was out at a bar with some friends when a woman a few years ahead of us walked in. I knew her only slightly, but one of my friends jumped up. "Hey! Did I hear that you just submitted your dissertation? Congratulations!"

We crowded around her, awed and impressed. Most of us had barely written a single chapter at that point.

"God! That must feel amazing," said one. "Does it feel amazing?"

"You must be so happy. Wow. You must be so proud." Said another.

She laughed. "You know? Eventually you get to the point where you hate your dissertation--SO MUCH--that the only way to be rid of it is to finish it."


That remains one of the more useful pieces of advice that I received in grad school. Though I never grew to hate my dissertation and I don't hate my book, I've hated large parts of the writing process and I've gone through plenty of periods of feeling sick of this project.

Right now is one such period. So last week I finished my latest round of revisions and dropped the manuscript back in the mail to the press that had asked for an R&R. I'm not so foolish as to think that this represents the last round of revisions that I'll make, or even the last significant revisions. But though parts of the book can still be improved, the shape of the whole is pretty much what it's going to be; I can't take this particular project any further, intellectually.

I hope my new reviewers like it. But if they don't, I'm going to send it out to another press--and if need be to another and another--before making further revisions.

I like my book. I feel good about its prospects. But it's time to move on.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Don't just be good, be useful

My previous post and the lengthy discussion thread it generated brought me back to one of my pet hobbyhorses (Flavialandia having insufficient grazing for actual horses), which is what desert and desire have to do with what we get, and how we cope when there's an obvious difference between expected and actual results. And that, of course, brought me back to Cosimo's college reunion.

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, this was a big reunion for his graduating class, and I imagine that for many people it represented an undeniable first step into middle age. But however anxiously defensive many of them sounded in their reunion book updates, they seemed purely delighted to be back on campus and seeing old classmates--so much so that everyone was perpetually squinting at my nametag and trying to engage me in warm, booze-fueled reminiscences.*

Since Cosimo was heavily involved in theatre when he was in college, sometimes doing as many as three or four productions a semester, a lot of the people we hung out with were his theatre friends; we also attended a panel on alumni in the arts, which included novelists and visual artists as well as those working in theatre, t.v., and movies. Unsurprisingly, almost none of the dozens of people Cosimo acted with are still acting (the most successful exception to this rule is on a well-known t.v. show. . . where he plays the dad of the show's teenaged star). However, about half of them are still involved in the performing arts, but on the writing and production end--often in niches they never imagined existed and that their 22-year-old selves probably would have had no interest in occupying.

I found it interesting to hear them talk about how they got to where they are. Some of these people are quite successful, but in jobs that aren't especially glamorous or even visible to the outside world. One person writes disposable blockbuster kids' movies, for example, and another is a producer at a special effects and animation studio. Several of them described their career trajectories as "following the path of least resistance," by which they didn't mean following the easiest path, but the path that turned out to have space for them: where there was a need and they had relevant skills, and that allowed them to flourish.

The lesson that I took away from this is that it's not just about talent. Some of the people in Cosimo's class may have been better actors or playwrights or screenwriters than many who have succeeded on Broadway or in Hollywood--but there wasn't space for them as actors or playwrights or screenwriters when they were coming up, so they went where they had the rarer or more valuable skill set. As an old acting manual of Cosimo's notes, children get rewarded for being good, but actors (like all adults) get rewarded for being useful.

Which is perhaps where this ties back to my own obsessions and the letter from the Times that I commented on the other day. Once you're an adult, your value doesn't lie in your raw talent or your potential. It lies in whether and where there's a use for it. Whatever college that letter-writer didn't get into simply didn't need her: it needed people with better scores, different extra-curriculars, or (possibly, but by no means necessarily) people from further-flung states, lower income brackets, or different ethnic backgrounds. That's not a judgment about her abilities or potential for personal success. It's a judgment about her usefulness in achieving what that college viewed as its own success: academically, socially, and otherwise.

Many of us academics in the humanities intended to be novelists, as both Cosimo and I did (though he pursued that route more seriously than I), but it turns out that most of us are better, or at any rate more useful, as scholars. It's possible that I could have written a novel and gotten it published, but it's almost certain that that novel would have had less impact than the book I hope soon to have under contract. People at cocktail parties might be more impressed by the former than the latter, but Weird-Ass Renaissance Shit (my personal subfield) needs me more than the world of fiction ever will.

*I'd written the initial of my own alma mater and my year of graduation on my nametag, but the first day no one noticed, requiring me to pre-empt conversations with "I didn't go here! You don't know me! I went to the other one!" The next day I inked it in darker.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

The forgotten voices of the rich and educationally advantaged

The following letter appeared on today's NYT letters page in response to a recent Times article about the lack of economic diversity at elite colleges and universities:
To the Editor:

David Leonhardt forgot about me. I grew up in suburban Pennsylvania and attended private school before Bryn Mawr College, the University of Pennsylvania and now the University of Oxford. And yes, my parents paid for it all.

I realize that not needing to work at 7-Eleven afforded me more time to study, read and learn. But I used it. Acceptance letters don't come because my parents foot the bill; kids like me get in because we are responsible, passionate and talented.

In theory, hard-working, low-income kids deserve help; in practice, their 1,250 SAT scores' counting for more than my 1,300 doesn't reflect meritocracy.

College admissions are a zero-sum game. Universities putting their "thumb on the scale" for a South Bronx applicant's 1,250 lessens the weight of my achievements. His 1,250's win is my loss.

Philadelphia, May 27, 2011

I'm willing to listen to arguments against certain forms of affirmative action, and I have some sympathy for those less advantaged white students who believe that "their spots" at a given college have gone to significantly less-qualified minority students. I think that belief is almost always unfounded, but I can still understand the aggrieved sense of exclusion felt by students from the struggling middle classes.

But this aggrieved sense of exclusion from someone who is wealthy and entitled is breathtaking. (And, seriously: a person with all her time, money, and alleged talent should do better than 1300 on the SAT--or at any rate score more than 50 points higher than a disadvantaged kid from the Bronx.)

Shorter Ms. Krems: people like her deserve all rather than most of the cookies.