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Happy Banned Books Week!

September 27, 2011 4 comments

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.

No, really.

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.

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Categories: books

A Diversion About the Loss of Magic

April 29, 2010 Leave a comment

Forgive this, it’s going to get rambly.

I’m listening to Beck’s Modern Guilt right now. For maybe the fourth time since I bought it, a month after it came out. Modern Guilt was one of those albums that made music geeks’ brains explode because it paired OMG BECK with OMG DANGER MOUSE, who I’d only just heard about because of that one song that you couldn’t fucking get rid of during the summer of 2006 that I’d only just paid attention to in early 2008. (For the people that don’t feel like trying to parse that sentence over and over til it makes sense: Gnarls Barkley recorded “Crazy” and released it in 2006 and I hated it because I couldn’t avoid it. Then I actually listened to it later, and I kinda liked it.)

But aside from what I’m listening to, I’ve finally gotten around to reading Gillen/Mckelvie’s Phonogram Vol.2: The Singles Club, and my brain’s been shoved into a tangent. First, I get into things way, way too late. It’s like my life is a constant running Jim Gaffigan gag (“Heat? That came out six years ago.” “Yeah, but I wanna talk about it now.”) Second, and this is the important bit, I don’t seem to enjoy things I used to nearly as much… especially in the music world.

The thing about Phonogram is that it uses magic as a very interesting metaphor for the sheer love of music. I mean, other people have drawn the music = magic parallel before, but Phonogram does it in a really interesting way by tying it to ritual magic. But the magic bit is a device to run that same bit of pop culture dissection that Hornby and Klosterman (terrible as he may be) and any other music critic has done in a different way. Instead of running through the same shitty buzzwords that print journalists use, Gillen and Mckelvie can show their readers what they mean. Such is the strength of comics.

But what does all that have to do with me liking music less? Well, not much, I guess, aside from maybe enlightening me to the fact that used to do the same dissection of minutia. I used to consume music by the metric tonne. I used to absorb it and internalize it and make it who I was. Maybe part of this came from the desire to be a professional musician myself. But I think most of it comes from that period in your life when you define yourself by what you consume. When I was seventeen, all I listened to was Metallica. (“No shit?” you’re probably saying sarcastically. “No shit,” I reply, while glaring at you with the eyes of somebody that actually liked Load because it was good, even if it wasn’t what people expected from Metallica.) By the time I hit college, I had expanded to nu-metal. And you know what? I still like the old Drowning Pool records, and Limp Bizkit’s first two albums were listenable for being misogynistic frat-boy shit. I’m even slowly coming to terms with the fact that I might actually like Deftones.

But somewhere in the past few years, I stopped really devouring new stuff, while at the same time somehow broadening my horizons. I like music now that varies wildly, from The Smiths to Amanda Palmer[*] to Mastodon[**] to Gary Numan. But the thing is, my music stopped identifying and shaping me, rather, I shaped my music. I can’t say “I love Nine Inch Nails” with the same vigor as the goth kids in 1995 did.

So my question in all of this is “When does our culture stop defining us, and when do we start defining our culture?” And, as a corollary, “Is it a bad thing when that tradeoff occurs?”

I made a point the other day on a different internet forum that I haven’t read a book that’s really rewired my brain in a long time. The same goes for music, and to a much, much more obvious extent, movies. I’ve simply stopped consuming the massive quantities of brain drippings that I used to. Now, this doesn’t necessarily make me feel guilty, but it makes me feel like there’s something amiss. I used to eat and breathe music. Now it’s just… something I have on in the car. Something that drowns out the sound of traffic outside my house. And on the same side of the quarter, playing music is something that I derive much less joy from. Writing a song is more like work than it ever has been.

I’m loathe to say that it’s because I’m not listening to enough stuff; I hardly think that’s the case. I think it’s more that I’m just no impacted by it as much as I used to be… and I’m trying to figure out why I don’t obsess about the gear Johnny Greenwood used on Kid A to get Sound X like I used to.

I’d like to say it’s because I’m growing up or maturing or some shit like that, but I refuse to accept that. I’m only 28. If anything, I feel like it’s because all the other bullshit life has to offer[***] is getting in the way. I’m now pulled in so many directions that it seems like sometimes the best plan is to just wait the whole thing out and let the valuable stuff come to me through time. And while it’s a good strategy for getting “safe” stuff, it’s not particularly fulfilling.

Going back to Phonogram (sort of), the main goal of magic is affecting the world around you. But at the same time, part of most magical traditions is understanding the world around you and how it affects you. So maybe that’s the problem? Maybe I’ve let the world affect me for too long? Maybe it’s time to start internalizing my surroundings so I can bend them to my will. Or maybe it’s all just twentysomethings-from-the-1990s wankery. Because sometimes I feel like my whole generation is a generation of wankers.

In any case, it still doesn’t answer why something that used to mean so much to me doesn’t anymore. At least, it’s not the same. Have I built up a tolerance to the things I used to enjoy? Do I just keep needing more and stronger music injections?

I mean, I don’t want to sound all middle-age crisis-y (again, the 28 years old argument), but I kinda miss the person I was ten years ago. Or at least, the one aspect of me that wasn’t an asshole. Back when it felt like I meant something, when the world around me felt like it meant something.

Ugh. This is getting entirely too emo. I’m going to stop before I actually say “I hope I die before I get old.” Because I think that’s when I jump the shark in my own brain.

Oh, and if you’re actually interested in what I’m listening to these days, I’m listening to a lot of She. Combine chiptunes and traditional dance hall electronic, and you get She. It’s really fucking good. But I’m not going to go learn Japanese to understand the (occasional) lyrics.

[*]Amusing Amanda Palmer anecdote: I can distinctly remember finding a Dresden Dolls CD in my friend’s binder in 2003 or so, when he was buying, without question, everything Roadrunner put out. I asked what it was like, and he said something to the effect of “It’s okay, but not metal at all,” at which point I completely disregarded it. Just last week, I bought the Dresden Dolls DVD Paradise because I’ve fallen entirely in love with all things Amanda Palmer. Oh, how times change.

[**]Amusing Mastodon anecdote: My first exposure to Mastodon was a few years back on a trip to (I think) Wheaton, MN, to run sound for some friends of mine. I came back from that trip and immediately bought Remission, and have purchased everything they’ve released since. “March of the Fire Ants” is still their best song.

[***]Cliff Burton: “When I started, I decided to devote my life to it and not get sidetracked by all the other bullshit life has to offer.” Also possibly relevant: “You don’t burn out from going too fast. You burn out from going too slow and getting bored.”

Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, Ten Years Later

April 23, 2009 1 comment

“Hey, I finally saw Heat!”
“Heat? I saw that six years ago…”
“Yeah, but I wanna talk about it now!”
~Jim Gaffigan

Ten years ago, we were all agog over The Matrix. Cyberpunk, electronica, and people in fetishistic vinyl clothing were suddenly everywhere. Me? I was still in my final years of high school. I admit, I never saw The Matrix in the theater. I, like many others who didn’t, kicked myself later for not doing so.

But this isn’t about The Matrix. Nope. It’s about a book. You know, those papery things they used to make before we all got addicted to our screens, phones, and Xboxen?

That book is Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon. Had I read this book when it came out, like some of my friends did, I might have a different view of it, but now, ten years later, we can look back on its trademark cutting-edge technology and see how well it has weathered the times.

First, some basic plot and character points. The book is one story, told over two time periods, with concentric story layers. Some characters occupy both timelines, some occupy just one, but they are all interconnected in some way. If you’ve stumbled this far into the internet to find my little corner, you’ve probably seen or heard of the book, but I’m going to try not to divulge too many secrets (well, no more than are in the book’s own synopsis…)

The Waterhouse clan is our main protagonist group in the story, given here in the forms of Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse and his grandson, Randall Lawrence Waterhouse, or Randy for short. Randy is a professional hacker; he builds networking code. Really good networking code. His grandfather was likewise gifted with numbers; the elder Waterhouse was a cryptographer in World War II. So what we end up with is a single story, told in bits and pieces, in two different time periods, but involving the same family. Oh, sorry: families.

See, Randy ends up contracting Doug Shaftoe and his daughter Amy to do some underwater cable work. Turns out Doug Shaftoe’s dad, Bobby Shaftoe, did some work with old man Waterhouse back in the day, in the super-secret Detachment 2702. They also worked with the mysterious Enoch Root, and together did all sorts of cat-and-mouse, cloak-and-dagger stuff with the Germans (and Japanese, I suppose) during the war.

But why would this mean anything? Well, there’s a lot of talk involving Randy’s new business venture, Epiphyte(2)– the 2 denoting that this is the second company called “Epiphyte” that he and his friends have concocted. Basically, Ephiphyte is building a data haven–a place where people can deposit their secret information without the prying eyes of governments or other entities seeing it. Eventually this whole operation gets turned upside down, thanks to operations and pacts made in the past… things that the elder Waterhouse, Shaftoe, and Root know about. The key to all of this is a mysterious set of computer punch cards that show up in the possession of Randy’s family.

Add to this some smatterings of Dr. Alan Turing (the computer guy), Gen. Douglas MacArthur (the Army guy), and some German conspirators that may or may not have lived, plus some Japanese engineers, and it all adds up to a century’s worth of awesome sauce.

Of course, the book is complex in ways other than its structure. There is some pretty complicated math in the book, plus there’s the added bonus of a lot of networking, business, and hacker lingo. What dates the book is precisely these things. The networking technology at this point was so far behind where we are today, when wireless networking is something you can get on just about any phone, GPS navigation is standard issue in many cars, and encryption is as easy as flipping a check box in a Windows dialog box. Back then, all these things must have seemed so bizarrely ahead of their time. The concept of servers and T1 lines and internet banking are all perfectly normal conversation in many circles now, no longer relegated to the annals of computer science buildings.

Now, I’m 27 years old. I have a pretty good grasp on network architecture, and I know a thing or two about Linux. But the math in some parts of the book is so far beyond my own abilities that I just let it pass. Whatever, I figure Stephenson probably had someone check it to make sure it worked. And that’s the thing about the details the book has: they don’t get in the way of the story. No matter how technical it wants to get, the book breaks down to Good vs. Evil, good ol’ treasure hunting, and the guy getting the girl.

The main thing that kept me coming back to the book (especially the second half, which I consumed in about three days–no small feat for being a 900+ page book) was the style. Think about it this way: if somehow Warren Ellis’ brain consumed all of Tom Clancy’s technical knowledge and then spit it out as both detailed and hilarious, that’s how this book would read. Like a technological Hunter S. Thompson. Which probably means I’ll have to add Stephenson to my list of People That Are Influencing My Fiction Writing.*

Since it is written in present-tense third-person, the book has an immediacy all the way through it that is hard to deny, and is probably what lent itself to such voracious consumption in the second half. And given that Stephenson wrote quick, simple chapters, with utterly fantastic cliffhangers, and structured the pacing in such a way that you didn’t know which plotline was going to be next, it was difficult to put the book down. It went from being a “chapter at a time” book to a “couple hundred pages at a time” book, and I was so consumed by it in the second half that I was emotionally invested in nearly every character in the book, from the lowest Chinese slave camp laborer to the highest German admiral to the nerds at Bletchly Park.

And so, ten years later, Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon stands the test of time not because it was an ahead-of-its-time cyber-thriller, but because it tells a pretty good story in a relatively unique way with a ton of fantastic copy. Sure, there are only so many stories to be told, but this one tells a few of them, at breakneck pace, with a fantastic sense of humor. Its details may be a little sketchy now, but it’s heart is definitely still in the right place.

This book may be ten years old, but Cryptonomicon is well worth the wait.

*The list so far: Hunter S. Thompson, Warren Ellis, Neal Stephenson