Weekly Web Roundup: 8/16

For the weekend crowd, this is a sampling of what we’ve been reading this week.

The good critic is not necessarily the one with the eagle eye for errors, nor the highly-developed palate that can detect the faintest misstep, nor the one who shows off with virtuosic turns of phrase or impeccable taste that’s better than the average audience’s. A good critic loves her work, loves her reader, and tries, in her criticism, to make a new, good addition to culture that expands her readers’ horizons.

And so when the great critic approaches the work with openness, hoping to be invited in, and finds the work wanting, his “negative” review reflects not a need to lambaste the artist for his stupidity or malice, but a genuine lament that the work was not all it could be, coupled with a search for what might still be true and good in the work. He will once again expand his readers’ horizons by showing them that more is possible, and will spur them on to seek it out.

Books took me far from myself into experiences that had nothing to do with my life, yet spoke to my life. Reading Homer’s “Iliad,” I could feel the uncanny power of recognizing the emotional universe of radically alien people. Yeats gave me a special language for a desire that defined me even as I had never known it was mine: “And pluck till time and times are done/The silver apples of the moon/The golden apples of the sun.”

But once in the college classroom, this precious, alternate life inside me got thrown back into that dimension of my existence that vexed or bored me. Homer, Chekhov and Yeats were reduced to right and wrong answers, clear-cut themes, a welter of clever and more clever interpretations. Books that transformed the facts were taught like science and social science and themselves reduced to mere facts. Novels, poems and plays that had been fonts of empathy, and incitements to curiosity, were now occasions of drudgery and toil.

In The Novelist—which will be out for PC by the end of the summer—the player is tasked with guiding an author named Dan Kaplan and deciding how he will spend his days. There are no bullets or rocket launchers here: the core conflict revolves around Dan’s ability—or inability—to balance his career, his marriage, and his relationship with his son.

You, the player, don’t directly control Dan; instead you are a ghost who inhabits his house. You can watch, observe, and manipulate at your discretion. One day, you might direct Dan to sit and work on his novel, boosting his career at the cost of neglecting his wife and son. Another day you might have help out his wife at an art show, or take his kid to the beach. Every time you go down one branch, the other two could suffer.

The idea, designer Kent Hudson says, is to make us all think about how we approach our own major life decisions.

Real reading is reincarnation. There is no other way to put it. It is being born again into a higher form of consciousness than we ourselves possess. When we walk the streets of Manhattan with Walt Whitman or contemplate our hopes for eternity with Emily Dickinson, we are reborn into more ample and generous minds. “Life piled on life / Were all too little,” says Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” and he is right. Given the ragged magnificence of the world, who would wish to live only once? The English major lives many times through the astounding transportive magic of words and the welcoming power of his receptive imagination. The economics major? In all probability he lives but once. If the English major has enough energy and openness of heart, he lives not once but hundreds of times. Not all books are worth being reincarnated into, to be sure—but those that are win Keats’s sweet phrase: “a joy forever.”

It seems to me that good storytelling comes out of a culture that has an implicit sense of order, both visible and invisible, against which characters can clash. Drama emerges from this. I had the odd experience a few years ago of reading Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, which was quite good as a diagnostic novel, but failed miserably as a novel of prescription. I mean, its exploration of how its characters founder in a culture of radical freedom is spot on. Lacking any direction in life, or standards around which to orient themselves, to judge themselves, to give them an idea about which choices are worthy and which are not, they do not know what to do with themselves, and make a mess of it. Well and good. But the conclusion of the book is extremely unsatisfying, precisely because Franzen himself appears to lack any sense of transcendent order that could offer a sense of meaning, of resolution. There is nothing for these characters lost in a dark wood to discover, no way out, no Virgil who will come to guide them, because Virgil cannot exist, and there is no set path. In this way, Freedom may be representative of its time, but it’s deeply frustrating as a story.

There is a certain common trait among homeschooled boys of being pert know-it-alls. This is because they do not get the chance to see themselves in reference to others. This also shows up when they begin to do anything that requires skill. They approach it as if they were the best person ever. They brag before they even try the skill. These are generalizations but I have seen it so many times that I am confident mentioning it.

James Daniels calls this a ‘drive to power.’ It is why boys need to be around male mentors. Men can knock a boy down and then lift him up in just the right way. Sports are not just about confidence but about knowing your place and being able to say “my bad.”

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