A little hidden secret among writers is that they actually do get writer’s block. When they say, “Oh, I don’t believe in writer’s block,” they’re full of shit. Why? Nine times out of ten, when you ask them where they get ideas, they say “I honestly have no fucking clue.” The other one times (that works, trust me), they’ll give some sort of version of this answer:
“I [read a lot/watch the news/keep a mental file of subjects], and when two things slam together just right, that’s usually when I start writing.”
And that’s all fine and well for those who can do such things. But the rest of us mortals sometimes have problems with those things slamming into each other, let alone “just right.”
A slight tangent:
Back in the ’70s (when he was still having his good ideas), Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt came up with a thing called Oblique Strategies. Essentially, it was some number of cards–I don’t remember exactly how many right now, and honestly you can check it out on Wikipedia yourself if you want–with phrases on them intended to push through, y’know, writer’s block. Some of them were obvious, like “Work at a different speed”, but some got pretty cryptic, like “Ask your body.” Essentially, it came down to generating an idea out of basically nothing. Sometimes, that idea was enough.
Before that, people like Stockhausen and Varese and Lucier and Glass and Reich were creating generative music; that is, music created from procedural rules and repetition, rather than traditional music theory.
This all comes around, I swear.
In my poetry writing class, our professor likes to split between self-generated poems (that is, poems without limitations) and programmed poems, which have a specific goal in mind. (Use a certain form, use a certain kind of word, etc.) Our most recent assignment was to create a poem in which two people, living or dead, meet in a situation they might not normally. This was based on the John Bradley poem “Two Tangos with the General”, in which the narrator has some… interesting experiences with Gen. Augusto Pinochet.
How hard could that be, right?
Pretty goddamn hard, in my case. It was pretty hard to come up with only two people, and dump them in only one situation, and make it both reasonably believable and utterly surreal. I told my professor as much, and told him that I was getting to the point of just throwing names into a hat.
And he said “Yeah! Do that!” I about peed myself. And then I thought about it for a minute. (The hat, not the peeing.) What if I actually did it?
“I suppose I could; that’s a pretty Eno thing to do,” I said.
“It’s a VERY Eno thing to do,” he said. (Sometimes he speaks in both italics and caps.)
So, in the spirit of experimentation, I made it a little more complex. I made a list of twelve people whose work I admire:
- David Bowie
- TS Eliot
- Hunter S. Thompson
- Jon Stewart
- Trent Reznor
- Warren Ellis
- Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
- Frank Lloyd Wright
- Alestair Crowley
- Stephen King
- Lou Reed
- Andy Warhol
(Yes, yes, I realize they’re all men. I’m working on it, okay?) Then, I took a twelve-sided die, and eliminated the result from the list, leaving eleven names, then ten, then nine, and so on, til I only had one left. Then, I took all twelve names again, and did the same process. That way, I had two quasi-random people with absolutely no decision-making on my part.
After that, I made a list of twelve mundane/bizarre situations:
- Stopping at McDonald’s
- Arguing opposite sides of a murder case
- Watching television
- Attending a baseball game
- Being stopped by the TSA
- Playing a used car salesman and a shopper, respectively
- Visiting a morgue
- Doing laundry
- Waiting in line at the DMV
- Watching Reservoir Dogs
- Sitting in the same book club
Then I rolled a d12 again, eliminating one each time, until I ended up with a scene.
I’m not positive on my math here, but if my numbers are right, there is a 1 in 1.4 billion chance that these characters and this subject would have come out in this specific order. And the weird part is how well it all worked! (At least in my mind. You’re free to think it’s bollocks, of course.)
Once I had finished, though, the whole process seemed odd to me in a really meta sort of way. For example, Bowie not only worked with Eno, but he’s also been caught on film literally picking lyrics out of a hat, or cutting up and simply rearranging words. Stephen King talks about his own idea generation in his book On Writing, which basically boils down to taking a walk (hopefully not getting hit by a van) and letting his mind wander until he gets two things that stick together and seem compelling enough for him that he can keep the idea til he gets home to start writing. And of course, I thought it was odd that they are/were both simultaneously high-brow and low-brow, they’re both former cocaine addicts (Bowie doesn’t remember making a few albums, specifically Station to Station; King doesn’t remember writing a single word of Cujo) they’re both morbid and hopeful, and so on. The morgue was just perfect, though McDonald’s would have been amusing as it’s the specific reason Bowie wrote “I’m Afraid of Americans”.
And really, it’s these sort of interconnections that I’ve been intrigued by my whole life. The musicians I pay attention to are all related somehow, the authors I read all read each other, my favorite non-fiction book is Warren Ellis’ DO ANYTHING, which itself is about interconnectedness in creativity. (I pimp that book constantly, I know, but it’s THAT GOOD.) Honestly, some of this shit isn’t coincidental, even when picked at random. Even the list of people I chose didn’t come out entirely at random, as there are interconnections between all of those people, too.
But what does this all come down to, eh?
Well, for starters, it’s really me trying to look more creative than I probably am. Any mook could pick two names off a list and write a poem about them. I happened to like the results, but it wasn’t hard once I got down to work.
The other big takeaway is to try methods that others have used to break out of their own ruts. Staring at a white page or blinking cursor is scary. Getting your fingers to play different patterns on guitar takes effort. Flip a card over. Read a book. Roll a die. The idea is probably in there, you just have to coax it out. This is how I got mine out in this instance.
Note: I discovered while writing this that Philip Glass is writer/producer/radio personality Ira Glass’s first cousin, once removed. I recently (late November/early December) started listening to This American Life as a podcast. There’s another one.
Ahoy! Time for the somewhat-annual blog update!
Not gonna bore you with the apologies and the promises to write more. That’s shit blogging. Everyone does it. I’ll just tell the truth: I haven’t had much to say in the past year. Yeah, I’ve written things, and I probably have novels’ worth of words up on Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr (not really that last one so much), but I haven’t had the reason to post anything long-form in quite a while. But I do have this (which I’ll explain in a second here) and a piece of criticism kicking that’s getting shunted around in my brain right now.
Probably the most pertinent thing–at least to this post–is that I started a poetry creative writing class this semester, after nearly twenty years of stumbling through intuitively. My professor is super awesome; the tough-but-fair, excited-to-teach, actually-concerned-about-your-work type. It’s pretty awesome, and I’m liking it so far.
Also, I’ve been slowly getting more involved in my friends’ awesome projects, which is the purpose of this post. My friend Libby Walkup dreamt up what I thought was a pretty compelling art/literature/bookmaking project called Letters to My Youth. I’ll let you check it out here for yourself. So in the interest of sharing, and because I promised someone I’d get more of my work online, here’s my submission. There’s only one printed copy and, for now, it will remain the only copy in existence. (If you want to get in on the project yourself, the deadline for postmark (you know, that thing that says when you sent your paper letter through the postal system) is this coming Friday. Get to it!)
Letter to My Youth by Rick Cummings
Get out. Get away from here,
away from the infinite rows
of sugar beets. Flee the fields
of intolerance and fear.
Some people wear their fear like mail,
each tiny iron loop guarding against
novelty, and the new.
Some people mistake foolishness
for character, and ignorance
for strength, abiding always
in complacence and “tranquility.”
Men are beautiful.
Your neighbor is not a terrorist.
Trade the endless expanse of nothing
for a book of magic beans.
Trade sprawl for opportunity;
implicit, nonexistent comfort
Love will find you
in many packages, filled with music
and innocent, unknowing howls.
Guilt is knowing.
Your poetry sucks. Ira Glass
knows this, and so do you.
It will get better in fits and starts,
and you will write this same poem forever–
The same whirlpool poem gurgles
down my brain today.
(I did make one tiny edit for this post. The double-hyphen/em-dash used to be just a period, but we’ll say I’m channeling Dickinson tonight.)
So that’s that, at least for now. It’s a little schmaltzy, but it’s also to Me from the Past. Everyone knows that Me from the Past is kind of a turd anyway, so it doesn’t matter if it’s schmaltzy or funny or whatever, because it’s not about him.
Bu anyway, I’ll hopefully have a new essay up in a couple weeks, and from there, who knows. School is hectic this semester (6 classes/18 credits) and we’re working on Real Actual Vacationing this year. But I’ll keep you hip to the hop if and when I post something more up here.
Predicting the Future:
A Ladies Home Journal Article That Will Never Be Published Because Paper and Publication Will Be Forced Into Obsolescence In About 2080 (Give Or Take A Few Years)
1. So. Mining asteroids. You know why people are awesome? People can, conceivably, mine asteroids. Dinosaurs couldn’t mine asteroids, despite being on Earth for nearly three-hundred-million years. You know why? T. Rex arms couldn’t reach the “Launch” button, and they’d previously eaten all the stegosaurs, so there was no one around to push the button for them.
What I’m saying is genocide is pretty stupid, and probably caused the end of the dinosaurs due to an unmined asteroid. We, on the other hand, can and will be mining asteroids. It beats the alternative of getting squished by them.
2. Nuclear power. It’s pretty clear at this point that fusion power is pretty impossible from a sustainability point of view, as it takes a tremendous amount of power to fuse helium. Since fissile material is “relatively” well-guarded and essentially required to kickstart the fusion process, fusion is clearly in the hands of only governments, and they’re still only focused on using fusion to blow other people up instead of actually furthering society. Let’s pretend, instead, that we’re still stuck with fission. Fission is gross and spits out all sorts of byproducts, especially if using uranium or plutonium as a primary fuel source. Instead, thorium reactors will take the place of uranium-fueled reactors. They’re less prone to go pop, their fuel can be refined from the waste products of our current uranium reactors, and the byproducts of thorium reactions are (on average) less dangerous than those from uranium plants. Thorium is significantly more prolific in nature, as well.
Now, obviously a large, vocal portion of the environmental crowd is going to complain about any nuclear process. Those people are wrong. In order to continue our current level of technological and theoretical knowledge (plus our way of life), we need massive amounts of electricity–to say nothing of post-dinosaur asteroid mining operations. That power has to come from somewhere, and unless we can come up with a way to reprocess banana peels into fusion power a la Back to the Future II, we’re stuck with what we have. That, or we can harness the bioelectrical output of fields of humans, but that’s just something that cold, unfeeling machines would do. (Plus it’s probably racist–and if you’re a machine, speciesist. Is that a word? MS Word says it isn’t, but I’m not inclined to believe it.)
3. Urban migration will continue until rural areas are nothing but barren wastelands of fields and automatic farming equipment. We already have combines that can drive themselves by GPS, so it’s not a terrible leap to assume that they’ll soon be automating the entire food production process. If people are smart and realize that eating meat is incredibly wasteful, maybe we’ll end up with farmland that is actually sustainable due to intelligent crop rotation and the reduced need of feedlots for animals. Crops will be planted where it is scientifically feasible to grow food, instead of the trend of terraforming fields as we have now. Natural drainage, combined with weather prediction that is actually accurate (I have a feeling this is the LEAST likely thing I’ve come up with so far) will produce crops of higher yield and less environmental impact without the need for genetically-engineered seeds.
Of course, we’ll still HAVE genetically-engineered seeds, because that’s what breeding IS.
4. Fossil fuels, obviously, will become depleted, though not without huge wars fought over the last bits of it. This will come to an incredibly ironic end when everyone figures out that the last lump of coal will barely heat a single room, and who cares because we have a pile of thorium-reactor-produced electricity anyway.
5. Traditional Western governments will fall and be replaced fully by corporate fascism, unless by some Roddenberrian miracle we move to a post-money, post-scarcity society. (Thorium reactors and asteroid mining are a good start, but even with those, we still ended up with the plot of Alien. Even with near-infinite resources we could die by getting eaten or impregnated by an acid-blooded bug-demon-thing.)
6. Music will continue to be made by computers. It won’t change that much from the way things are now (Xenakis had been doing that already for decades before his death in 2001), but it will be made entirely without the input of humans. I suppose that assumes a certain level of artificial intelligence, and may also infer that humans will be either enslaved or eradicated by computers, but I don’t know if that, specifically, will occur before or after a computer composes its own Ode to Joy.
7. Humans (if they have not been enslaved by robots) will discover extra-terrestrial life, and–as has been our way for thousands of years–our first reaction will be to try to stab it and see what color it bleeds. Unfortunately, any space-faring race will likely be technologically advanced enough to simply vaporize us (to their delight) or give us some biochemical agent which slowly and agonizingly kills the entire human race (also to their delight.)
Aliens are jerks like that.
8. Humans will forget that there was a time when our planet was thought to be: flat, the center of universe, carried on the backs of infinitely downward turtles, and mostly covered in water. Then they’ll just be reminded by the Infinite Knowledge Receiver Query (or “ikr?”) unit installed in their brain during gestation. Related to this:
9. Medical procedures will be as routine as car maintenance is currently. It will also be as annoying, because instead of a talking to a mechanic that’s not listening to you, you’ll talk to a robot that’s not listening to you. Likewise, the robot will probably try to upsell you on body parts you don’t actually need. For this reason, physical deformities will become commonplace, as most people are too polite or stupid to say “No” when an “expert” tells them they need something.
10. Personal transportation will advance to the point that quantum mechanical theory can be rounded off enough to spit “you” out on the other end of a transporter station. Physical deformities will be commonplace, as rounding still isn’t exact, but people stop paying attention after a few dozen decimal points.
11. Predictions of the future in the future will come from the disembodied heads of Philip K. Dick, Jack Kirby, Hunter S. Thompson, Warren Ellis, Stan Lee, China Meiville, and Kurt Vonnegut (if their heads are indeed available and haven’t been destroyed by politicians (or, in Thompson’s case, destroyed further than it already is (I can make that joke, I’m clinically depressed))). Each and every one of those heads will leap off the table and try to eat people who use nested parentheticals.
Note: I fixed some of the fission/fusion stuff after some
jerks very helpful people corrected me. It’s not that I didn’t know what I was talking about, I just repeatedly made typos.
Since we’re toward the tail end of the ’80s retro, I figure I’d do my part to introduce all you young whipper-snappers to the music of the ’90s. Now, I know you already have some of this down, since your high-school NEW MUSIC ALL THE TIIIIIIME!!! station plays the hell out of Nirvana and R.E.M. But I’m going to introduce you to some stuff you probably haven’t heard because I (being old and decrepit) have actually heard first-hand. Or near enough, anyway. Sit back and relax for 20 songs by 18 artists.
Hunger Strike – Temple of the Dog
This is the only grunge song on this list, and it’s far and away the best one ever written. There are no questions. Do not argue.
Seasons in the Abyss – Slayer
SLAYYYYYYYERRRRRRRR!!! *flails madly*
This song has the added bonus of having my favorite Slayer riff in it. I play it on guitar without even realizing it. This performance is a little ragged vocally (even for Tom), but right around the second verse it really starts kicking off.
1991 was kind of a big year, in case you haven’t noticed. Metallica, Guns’n'Roses, Nirvana, and U2 all put out ridiculously huge, even “important” albums that year. So I’m going to pick one song from that pile–one that’s not even a single–and one from a band you little kids have never heard of because none of you were born at that point.
Love is Blindness – U2
Achtung Baby was a massive album, there’s really no way to deny it. It had a pile of hits, one bona fide “timeless classic”, and took a band that was already big and made it even bigger (through a twist of clever marketing and Ironic Irony (times infinity). To me, though, the best songs on the album aren’t even the singles. The last half of the album has much more “to it” than the first half. I mean, sure, the singles are awesome and all that, but in my opinion the “real” music is backloaded on the album.
This performance is off of From the Sky Down, the documentary the band just released about the making of Achtung. It (the movie) gets pretty wankery pretty much every time Bono opens his mouth (which is often), but it’s a nice doc. A better one is This Might Get Loud, directed by the same director and featuring The Edge, Jack White, and Jimmy Page. Jack White, incidentally, plays the best version of this song.
Unsuccessfully Coping with the Natural Beauty of Infidelity – Type O Negative
Well I can’t embed this one, so here you go. I guarantee you little shits haven’t heard this song. Which is a pity.
Fucking Hostile – Pantera
Hey kids, back in the day, our metal didn’t fuck around. None of this Bullet for Valentine, touchy-feely Nickelback shit. Lots of really fast guitar, and a lot of screaming. THAT’S FUCKING METAL. LEARN FROM IT.
Last – Nine Inch Nails
This one is kind of a gimme; you all know who Nine Inch Nails are. You might even have this EP. But you’ve probably never seen this song from onstage with a single DSLR camera. Now you have. (This performance is tuned down to drop-C, the album is drop-D. It’s a little heavier.) Plus you get to hear Robin Finck’s sexy-as-hell voice.
Black No. 1 – Type O Negative
Yep, Type O again. Oh, another band you should check out: Bauhaus. They’re ’80s, but Pete Steele is basically the metal Peter Murphy.
Mary Jane’s Last Dance
Things I learned in this video: Tom Petty’s voice can only get more annoying. Mike Campbell is still the best member of The Heartbreakers. Scott Thurston is their secret weapon. Benmont Tench has the coolest name.
Another pretty big year, and I’m picking these based solely on how badly I want to cover the songs in a band.
Red Right Hand – Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
Nick Cave has the voice you’d expect nightmares to be narrated by. You kids would probably identify with Pete Yorn’s cover of this song, but you know what? That version sucks. This is the real shit, here.
Finger Paintings of the Insane – Acid Bath
I know none of you little bastards have heard this song. While you’re at it you could do well to check out Crowbar, Goatwhore, and anything Dax Riggs have even thought about. Your derivative little lives will be better because of it.
Street Spirit (Fade Out) – Radiohead
There are more Radiohead songs that “Creep”, you know. Not that you would know, since your only reference to them is arguably the best episode of South Park of all time.
Hail Caesar – AC/DC
I know you guys hate your parents’ music and all, but this is a rock band. I know pretty Jared Leto is in a “rock band”, but he’d never be caught dead making a song that actually ROCKS. AC/DC destroys things that are beautiful.
1996 has releases from Tool, Metallica, Nirvana, Soundgarden, Nick Cave, Prong, Bush, Weezer, Korn, and about a billion other people. Instead, I’m giving you these.
Three Marlenas – The Wallflowers
In case you’re wondering, Jakob Dylan is Jesus. You’re obliged to now listen to every album produced by T-Bone Burnett. (Your parents probably have the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. Go start with that.)
Where It’s At – Beck
Beck Hansen is still before his time, 15 years after this song was released. (Fun note: The Dust Brothers also produced Hanson’s “MMMBop”. Let that one simmer for a while.)
All Hail the New Flesh – Strapping Young Lad
Probably the best industrial/grind/thrash/prog album every made. You little shits could learn from this. WORSHIP THE SKULLET.
Come to Daddy – Aphex Twin
Richard D. James is one ugly motherfucker. In this video. Most of the time he’s pretty normal looking (for a Brit!) Anyway, this is a million times better than that dubstep shit you people listen to now. The fact that Skrillex won three Grammys and Aphex Twin hasn’t made an album since 2001 is an abomination.
New Millennium Cyanide Christ – Meshuggah
They’re kind of important, Meshuggah. They’re the band that all these “extreme” bands are trying to be. Their biggest secret weapon? 8-string guitars. CRAZY.
The first time I heard this album was from the student teacher that was working with the band at my high school. “Oh, you like Metallica?” he said. “Then you’ll love this.” When you’re seventeen and from a shithole little podunk town in Minnesota, Meshuggah turns your brain into mush, and you can’t process it for a good five or six years.
Maybe it’ll keep you brats off my lawn for a while.
Iris – Goo Goo Dolls
I honestly just wanted to work this one in here somehow. It’s probably the best pop ballad ever written, and you kids are listening to your James Blunt instead. What’s wrong with you?
My Poor Generation – Moxy Fruvous
Dave Matheson is my favorite former member of Fruvous. This is my favorite Fruvous song. You kids would do well to catch up on Fruvous. Put some actual music in your music. (For some reason this wouldn’t embed at a specific time marker, so just click on it, you lazy assholes.)
Starfuckers, Inc. – Nine Inch Nails
So there you go. Twenty songs you little shits should bring back with your neon handbags and ironic flannel. You now made me and all my friends feel about thirty years older, I hope you’re happy with yourselves.
PS When we wanted to get music we had to WALK to the store THROUGH THE SNOW. UP HILL. BOTH WAYS. WITH OUR LITTLE BROTHERS ON OUR BACKS.
It’s the first of the year, and I’m drinking a beer so good it may actually get me to drink beer again. I don’t normally drink (let alone beer—this is my first in over a year), but part of that is because when I drink I get obnoxious. I’ve always said that drinking doesn’t change you, it makes you more you. So if you’re a mean dick, you turn into a stupendous asshole. If you’re already a stupendous asshole, God help you.
Anyway, I’m drinking this beer (a Mad Anthony’s Auburn Lager, made here in Fort Wayne), and my wife is cleaning the sun room/library thing we have, and her parents are upstairs trying to sleep before they get back on the train home. The cat is knocking over the vinyl, and the wind is howling, and I’m sitting here writing, because I frankly can’t think of much better to do. I don’t really know what to even write about, but obviously I feel like there’s something in there, because I sat down and fired up Word and here we are. I guess we’ll find it when we get there.
A week and a half ago, I turned thirty. While this is milestone for most people because it’s when they hit middle age and start worrying about their houses and kids’ educations and shit, I just sort of flew past it without much of a thought. And I don’t really think much of it now. My entire adult life (to this point, anyway) has felt like an extended adolescence, I guess. Maybe not even adolescence, but I just don’t feel like (aside from no longer being an asshole drunk womanizer, and the whole “having a kid” thing) my life has really moved on from about 25 or so. Which is odd, considering the whole “having a kid” thing is supposed to be one of those life-changing things.
And I suppose it is. I mean, my plans no longer include staying up until 5am playing board games and drinking until I barely remember what happened, and I largely don’t spend my spare time chasing women I have no chance of landing. For the most part, life has, I guess, settled down. Which worries me, because I’d always had grand designs of moving to Chicago or New York or London or Stockholm or somewhere else large and busy and cosmopolitan and simply Anywhere But Here. I’m slowly watching that plan slip away.
It’s not even a mortality thing; I’m not afraid of dying. I’m afraid of failing to live, of not living up to my potential or hitting the marks other people set for me. Not that I’d call it fear, so much as anxiety. Which is, I guess, a stage of fear, but not really the same thing.
In any case, 2011 was a hell of a year because I found out that I’m essentially in the same boat I was in ten fucking years ago (school is still full of idiot students and idiot professors, with less Good Eggs than I can count on one hand) except through the lens of having experienced it all already. Nothing new under the sun, and all that. Especially tired clichés. (That’s lampshade-hanging, you see.) (So was that last parenthetical. And this one. I could do this all night, really.) There’s probably something about turning into my dad that would go here, too. One of those whiny little daddy-issue things.
I own a house now. By which I mean my wife owns a house and pays the mortgage and bought a car and pays for all the food, and I just keep everything moving, but just barely. I feel like I’m probably expendable, though I’m sure my wife would say otherwise. So now I’m sitting here, listening to the wind and the house creak and watching my wife scurry about, putting things into bags and turning out lights, and I largely feel like 2012 probably won’t see much progress. I feel like this is probably the point where I should make resolutions (make more submissions to journals or something, write more songs, do better in school, lose weight, whatever), but I’m just here, drinking and writing and thinking about Don Quixote mocking me from the other room, still unfinished (the book, not the room) and how I have a stack of things still to get to that I may never will simply because I’m lazy. Or something. It’s not really that I’m lazy or that I don’t care; it’s more that I just don’t feel like there’s all that much to do that I have to do, or that I can make better by having me specifically do it. Nor is it likely that there’s a penalty to my not finishing Don Quixote or catching up on Kick-Ass 2 or watching any number of movies we bought that I haven’t watched or books we have that I haven’t read or anything like that.
I think, more than anything, the urgency has gone out of my life, so I manufacture it out of procrastination and faux deadlines (that I still ignore anyway), as if the pressure will make me work. Obviously it doesn’t, so now I just sit here feeling useless and writing terrible dreck for the whole internet to read.
Thanks, I guess.
ANYWAY (as my arch-nemesis-who-doesn’t know-it is fond of saying), I’m getting to the point of winding all this down to some sort of conclusion, and I don’t think there is one, and I think that’s my point. Maybe. My whole life is just one open-ended essay answer, and here I am bullshitting through it like a freshman history exam. And now you’re reading it.
And now my wife has gone upstairs, having finished her cleaning. This should probably tie in somehow, as a bookend of sorts, but I’d really just have to say something about this beer I’m still drinking. It’s a pretty good beer, I guess.
But I don’t think I’ll make a habit out of it.
Oh hey it’s Banned Book Week! Since we’re a little starved for content around here, with me starting school and all, I figure I should probably do a little something. So that something is this: I’m going to list all the books from the ALA’s List of Banned and/or Challenged Classics that I’ve read, and a few words about each. Numbering follows the order in the ALA list (which is, in turn, based on the Radcliffe list of 100 best novels.)
1.The Great Gatsby – I never read this book in high school, though it’s required reading in a lot of classes (and, in fact, may have been in the other English classes at my school.) I didn’t actually read it until college, when we read a Fitzgerald short story in an American Lit class. I went out and bought it that same week and read it in about two days. It’s a fantastic, fantastic book, and I suspect—like most books we’ll be coming across in this list—the people trying to ban it have never actually read it, nor (if they have) understand it.
2. Catcher in the Rye – Okay, I’m lying here. I read most of this one. During a Spanish class. When someone else was studying the book for a different class. Basically I stole it from them and read it while doing my best to not pay attention. I should probably get around to finishing it one day. Maybe then I’ll get to the parts about why they keep banning it.
3. The Grapes of Wrath – Read it as a sophomore for class. While my teacher was pretty heavy-handed with the symbolism in the book (aren’t they all?), I really enjoyed it. Apparently people take offense to one of the leads having the same initials as Jesus Christ. C’mon people, that’s pretty common. Or maybe it’s because the book is overtly socialist. Yeah, that’s probably it. I’m sure the Okies would have been okay if they would have just worked harder to keep all that dust from flying off their fields.
4. To Kill a Mockingbird – People literally don’t read this book or don’t comprehend it. There’s no other way to explain how the book that gave us Atticus Finch can be challenged. I mean, I understand that the word “nigger” is used in it, but doesn’t this fall under the category of “teachable moment”? Isn’t that what critical thinking is for? Isn’t that why we go to school? Isn’t that the point of the book?
8. The Lord of the Flies – I really enjoyed this book. The social interaction within it is exactly what should be read and understood by high school students (and everyone, for that matter.) Just because some of the kids happen to display behavior unbecoming to a good British child doesn’t mean the overarching point of the book fails. There’s a term for that, it’s called “gestalt”. I realize it’s German, and therefore scary, but it’s quite applicable here. Also, as a personal note: Carleen Matts, if you happen to be reading this, I apologize 100% for being such a shit when we read this. I still believe that sometimes a story is just a story, but this is not one of those times.
12. Of Mice and Men – Read the same year as Grapes of Wrath, and I absolutely detest it. *SPOILER* Lenny dies in the end. On the last page. With no resolution past that. I have never been more angry at the way a book ended. I realize that’s the point, but still. Screw you, Steinbeck. Maybe that’s why it keeps getting banned/challenged: people are just pissed off at the ending.
19. As I Lay Dying – Read this in the same Am Lit class I mentioned earlier. In fact, I kept my Norton Anthology from that class because it contains the entire text of the novel (and because it has some other choice bits of a zillion great books and poems). While I’m used to books and films that have a narrative that is disjointed and may have many different viewpoints, I really like the way Faulkner pulled this one off. It’s one of those books that makes me stop and say “Why don’t I read more of this guy?”
And if there’s anything that should be taught in school, it’s that how people perceive you is not how you perceive yourself, and how you see others may not be how they really are. Even bumbling fuckups might be trying their hardest. (Or they might be bumbling fuckups. It could really go either way.)
29. Slaughterhouse-Five – Read as a palette cleanser while in the middle of a Hunter S. Thompson kick in college, partially because I had a friend reading it for class. I instantly fell in love with Vonnegut’s prose style, and his conversational tone, and I’ve gone on to get other books of his. They are all amazing, and you should feel bad if you haven’t read them.
I suspect the biggest reason this one gets challenged/banned is because of either a) the fact that humans are kept as zoo animals, or b) that there’s a pair of crudely-drawn boobs toward the end. I suspect it’s more the latter than the former.
40. The Lord of the Rings – Yes, I read the whole thing, including the Hobbit. I’ve tried getting into the other stuff Tolkien has written, but I just don’t have the wherewithal for it. Maybe one day. What I find most funny is that people cite it as anti-Christian, even though it has many of the same themes as the Bible. (Like, the actual Bible, not the one people wave against whatever they don’t agree with.)
49. A Clockwork Orange – Again, this falls down to people simply not reading the book or comprehending it. I’ll give a little leeway on that, though, because the language is about as easy to understand as calculus is to a third-grader. I’m still not sure I get exactly what is said, but I get the big picture. I also get that the final chapter was omitted from the US printings of the book (and as such, from Stanley Kubrick’s movie adaptation), and without it, the whole point of the book fails. Instead of it being a book about a rough gang member who gets caught and goes through a failed indoctrination by the state, only to relapse and then come to his own decision on his way of life, it’s just about violence and fascism. Burgess hated the book, and hated what it turned into, and I think he’s right. But I think his book is more like Catcher in the Rye than he realizes. It’s a book about growing up.
50. The Awakening – While I respect the themes of the book, and find it to be a great work of literature, I absolutely despise the character of Edna. I’m not sure that Chopin even wanted the reader to like her. She’s just so “Fuck you, I do what I want” that I can’t really identify with her. I realize that a lot of it comes out of the Victorian culture and her being so antithetical to it, but, well, put it this way: I can only listen to about four Rage Against the Machine(NSFW) songs before I just want to find something else.
Now that’s only eleven books, but I either own or have on the To Read list about a dozen more from the ALA list. But you know what? The ones I have read made me a better person. Too many people (parents especially) are caught up in trying to legislate away critical, individual thought—too busy trying to watchdog everyone else’s morality while ignoring their own.
The point of school is to learn and entertain new ideas. The point of teaching a book is to understand it. The organized movement against both education and understanding in this country (the US) is appalling, and parents are shirking in their responsibilities on raising children that are capable of understanding concepts like racism, sexism, sexuality, war, death, drugs, society, politics, and control.
Maybe then, one day, we could live in a “civilized” society where unarmed people don’t get blasted with pepper spray by the people that are paid to protect them, where the right choices are made beforehand so the sort of situation that allows for such things don’t happen to begin with.
But who am I kidding? That will never happen. In the meantime, go read a book, so when someone tells you you’re wrong for reading it, you can tell them they’re a fascist asshole that are actively undermining their own freedoms.
1. Part the Last
Okay, so here we are. If you haven’t done so already, you can check out Part 1 here and Part 2 here. Part one also has a bit of discussion about why the hell I’m even regurgitating a months (years?) old meme from Facebook.
2. The List, Part 3
8tracks link-style! (No, I still haven’t fixed embedding. Right-click and open in a new tab or window.)
21. “Fat-Bottomed Girls” – Queen – A Song You Listen to when You’re Happy
I make the claim that this is the best rock song of all time. Sure, there might be Beatles songs that are more popular, and AC/DC songs with more drive, but for me this song is all about the attitude, performance, and production. First, this song sounds (pardon the pun) huge. The drums are thick, the guitar is expansive, and holy shit Freddie Mercury. Let’s face it, a better frontman has never lived. I don’t think it’s possible that Queen could have ever played in a club. And of course this was from their seventh album, so I doubt it was ever played in front of less than eight-hundred-thousand people.
And that drum fill before the last chorus? HUGE. I think Roger Taylor was using a 17-piece kit for that. (I may have exaggerated a bit on this particular inclusion.)
22. “Blake Says” – Amanda Palmer – A Song You Listen to when You’re Sad
I really can’t say too much about this one. “He takes his pills but never takes his medicine” is probably one of the best lyrics of all time, though. Amanda Palmer’s lyrics are so good it actually makes me angry. And this is coming from someone who rarely, if ever, listens to music for its lyrical content.
23. “In Your Eyes” – Peter Gabriel – A Song You Want Played at Your Wedding
You know that part in Say Anything when John Cusack holds up his boombox and plays this while standing out in the driveway? I don’t, because I’ve never seen it. Despite being a huge fan of both Peter Gabriel and John Cusack (and Cameron Crowe, for that matter). But! Somehow my wife and I came together over how goddamn awesome Peter Gabriel is, and decided we wanted it performed at our wedding. That fell through (thanks to the guy who was going to do it having to go to an in-law’s wedding or something), so we ended up having it for our first dance. Incidentally it was only time we ever danced, as we both avoided ever learning how. (I can pick ‘em, I say.) Also, despite being in 4/4, it’s practically impossible to dance to in any “traditional” way. So was a weird album like that.
24. Beethoven’s 9th Symphony – A Song You Want Played at Your Funeral
The whole thing. With a full orchestra and choir.
I’m not kidding.
(This isn’t on the mix because it’s an hour long. Also it was going to be Mozart’s Requiem, but that’s just maudlin and cliche.)
25. “ZTO” – Devin Townsend – A Song that Makes You Laugh
That Wilhelm Scream at the beginning makes me cackle every damn time. The entire Ziltoid album is fantastic (“I am so omniscient, if there was to be two Omnisciences, I would be both!”), and the insanity starts right off the bat. I constantly reference the “Make it perfect!” at the end of the track. Devin has a sense of humor unparallelled. He’s definitely the second coming of Frank Zappa.
26. “Something Vague” – Bright Eyes – A Song You Can Play on an Instrument
It’s not a terribly difficult song on guitar, but I really like playing it. I could have probably put any number of other songs, but this was the first one that came to mind. It’s also, oddly, the only Bright Eyes song I know how to play.
27. “99 Ways to Die” – Megadeth – A Song You Wish You Could Play
This is, and probably always will be, my favorite Megadeth song. I just can’t seem to play it. I think it’s because it only sounds right if two guitars are playing it. Or because I’m trying to learn it off shitty internet tabs. In any case, if I ever learn how to play it, I will never play another song again, because I’ll just play this non-stop.
28. “Delilah” – The Dresden Dolls – A Song that Makes You Feel Guilty
This is the last Amanda Palmer-penned song on the list (my god, there’s a lot of them). I say it makes me feel guilty because it wavers between blaming the victim and frustration and exasperation. It’s almost painful to listen to because I think everyone knows one of those people that is stuck in a what appears to be an obviously toxic relationship but won’t get out of it. And that’s the part that I identify with. The problem I have is that it really seems to blame the person in the relationship, and that just doesn’t fly with me. It ultimately ends unresolved and the whole thing makes me feel downright bad. But it’s such a good song otherwise.
I’ve also discovered that, in trying to cover it, it sounds entirely different coming from a male singer. It sounds so completely asshole-ish that it’s really making me doubt the decision to cover it. It goes from being a song about frustration and friendship to a song about what a stupid bitch Delilah is and I just can’t do that. So this message is for the guys out there: Don’t cover this song, you’ll sound like a dick.
29. “Batdance” – Prince – A Song from Your Childhood
I actually had to think about this for a while. And once I settle on “Batdance”, I had to find a copy of it, which took some doing, considering how fucking popular the movie and the song were when I was nine. My favorite part is how it’s just a bunch of samples from the movie Batman with a couple of the theme from the 1960s show (mainly the “Batmaaaaan!” bits) over a fairly generic Prince instrumental bed.
But holy shit look at this video:
It’s like everything that was awesome and horrible about the 80s rolled into one. Which is, really, the same thing you could say about Prince.
30. “The Noose” – A Perfect Circle – Your Favorite Song at This Time Last Year
Like I said the first time around, this song has been my favorite since I first heard it. Probably won’t change.
So What Have We Learned?
Well, there are some amusing things, like going from Skynryd to Meshuggah, or from Slayer to Queen. Part of the reason I liked the original meme was that it gave me a chance to actually mention some things I don’t talk about much, or don’t typically acknowledge, like Peter Gabriel. I am, however, a little annoyed that I can’t honestly mention more underground stuff that I like, because so much of it doesn’t really fall into any of the above categories. It’s hard to fit something like chiptunes into anything listed, you know? It’s hard to cite Prong or Goatwhore as something that makes you fall asleep.
Also, uh, I don’t really go digging for random underground shit just because. I have no problem with reaching for populist garbage. Half the songs on this list probably could have qualified under “guilty pleasure” from some people, but I don’t really like to shy away from music I love.
If we want to do any sort of horrible statistical analysis by genre, it breaks down like this:
Other stuff: 7
You can debate what criteria I segregated those out by, but that’s how I see it. It’s not really as varied as I was hoping, but considering I don’t have any rap/hip-hop on there, only one country song, no jazz, and so on, I can’t really complain that much.
Now, having reached the end of all of this, I’m not even sure how much this list adds to the wider world of criticism. That really goes for any sort of list, though. I suppose it can add to the overall conversation of cultural minutiae, but it ultimately feels like it was an exercise in extracting meaning out of a bunch of arbitrary decisions. So many of them just came flying out of my ass (e.g., “Something Vague” just being the first song I can play that I though of) that it seems like the whole thing is devoid of meaning. And this doesn’t even touch on the people that answer every prompt with things like Justin Beiber. So it makes me wonder just how doomed our world is.
Though the fact that it came from Facebook should have been a warning.
In the end, though, I had fun compiling the original list, so I guess I’ll have to mark it in the win category. It’s just sad that, for being someone who puts so much emphasis on “WHY DO YOU LIKE WHAT YOU DO”, I really couldn’t dissect some of these further. Oh well. Come back next time for a much better episode!