Archive for January 2012
On Sunday, I did something that I rarely ever do: I watched the pilots of two new TV shows. Part of this was thanks to the realization that with a new series, I can watch just one episode and get a blog post out of it. (By contrast, I still have the entire fourth season to finish before I feel qualified to write anything about Breaking Bad.) I was also intrigued by these two particular shows, but for very different reasons. One is Touch, from Heroes creator Tim Kring, a writer best known for blowing up his own fanbase while running his previous show into the ground. The other is Luck, from David Milch and Michael Mann, two erratic geniuses whose best impulses are hard to distinguish from their worst, but whose involvement in any project is inherently exciting. And while I predictably liked one show far more than the other, both have interesting things to say about the pitfalls of trying to create good, reasonably intelligent television for a large popular audience.
Believe it or not, I was looking forward to Touch, and not just for the chance to hear Kiefer Sutherland say “Dammit!” again. While most of the reviews were negative or skeptical, they grudgingly granted that the show displayed a certain structural ingenuity, or, to quote Ryan McGee of the AV Club: “This is extremely well-made schlock.” Unfortunately, Touch turns out to be the kind of show that wants us to be intrigued by the Fibonacci sequence without ever explaining why. It supplies one of those narratives, familiar from movies like Babel, that present elaborate webs of coincidence as a reflection of how the world really works. The trouble with both Touch and Babel is that by the end, we aren’t looking at any version of reality, but at a system of contrivance developed by the screenplay. The show revolves around an autistic boy who can allegedly see the uncanny patterns underlying all of reality, but ultimately, he’s just privy to Kring’s script notes. The result is a slickly made show that is content to seem smart on the most superficial level possible.
To its credit, Luck takes the opposite approach: this is a genuinely intelligent show that doesn’t seem to care much about holding the audience’s hand. This doesn’t mean that it’s impenetrable. Some of the early buzz about the show’s alleged incomprehensibility made it sound like Mann and Milch were adapting Finnegans Wake, but this is simply a show that rewards close attention, and perhaps multiple viewings. (I ended up watching the first twenty minutes twice, and I’m glad I did.) Like many previous outings from Mann and Milch, it’s steeped in the arcana of a complex, mostly masculine world, in this case that of horse racing, and one of the show’s pleasures is its confidence that the viewer will pick up most of this material on the fly. It’s true that much of it seems obscure at first, but it isn’t because, as with Touch, that there’s no greater depth to be found: there’s just a lot going on here, and if we occasionally need to consult a cheat sheet, it’s a small price to pay.
As it happens, the two pilots have a plot point in common—a winning lottery ticket, or its equivalent—and it’s instructive to consider the radically different approaches they take. Touch has a lottery ticket that’s basically a callback to Lost: a string of mystical numbers that win on a particular day simply because the script requires it. Luck, by contrast, takes us through the details of a $2.6 million pick six ticket to the point where we can understand the strategy behind each choice, until the outcome, while in some ways equally contrived, feels inevitable. That’s the difference between these two shows: drill down at any point with Luck, and you uncover a whole world of texture, information, and experience, while any attempt to dig deeper with Touch just gives you Tim Kring and his laptop. And the funny thing is that both shows essentially succeed at what they’re trying to do—which should remind us that in television, as in life, you only win as much as you’re willing to risk.
Over the weekend, my wife and I finally saw Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist, the loving homage to silent film that has unexpectedly become the movie to beat at the Oscars. It isn’t hard to see why: this is one of those cinematic stunts, like Memento, that has to be done exceptionally well in order to be done at all, and from its opening scene, with the hero of a silent melodrama insisting to his captors that he’ll never talk, you know that this is a movie blessed with an abundance of ideas. Nearly every scene contains some kind of inspired visual or structural gag, from loving recreations of classic silent comedy routines to nods to Citizen Kane and Singin’ In the Rain, as well as the predictably clever, but still amusing, use of surprise sound effects. It’s so blissfully inventive, in fact, that while I was watching it, I did something I haven’t done in a long time, at least for a movie not made by Pixar: I settled in happily to see what it would do next.
It’s a little surprising, then, to realize that while the movie lavishes so much care on its individual scenes, the overall story is cheerfully formulaic. With a few small exceptions, the story unfolds precisely as we expect, tracing the rise of one star and the fall of another with a literalness that makes A Star is Born seem like the height of sophistication. Unlike the silent films to which it pays tribute, which often had a loose, anarchic sense of story, The Artist follows the Syd Field structure to the point where it’s almost anachronistic. With its neat division into three acts, complete with false crisis, real crisis, and all the other obligatory beats, this is a film that will be studied in screenwriting courses until the end of time, but perhaps not for the right reasons. The execution is seamless, and not without its pleasures, but it still left me wishing for more in the way of real suspense or surprise.
Later, however, I began to wonder if this apparent simplicity is more complex than it seems. For one thing, it was probably impossible for a film like The Artist, which asks so much of a modern audience, to tell anything but the simplest, most classic story. As I’ve said before, when a movie pushes complexity in one direction, it often has to give way in another, which is why the characters in a film like Inception, for instance, can seem so schematic: push complexity in every direction, and you risk of losing the audience entirely. In some respects, then, the classic structure of the plot of The Artist is as much of a stunt as its obvious technical feats. The movie is a clockwork device that has been cut away to show us its inner workings: even as its story plays on our emotions, it invites us to see how it does it. In that respect, it does what the third act of Adaptation tried valiantly but unsuccessfully to do, which is to comment on the nature of formula while working as a story as well.
Or perhaps I’m giving Hazanavicius too much credit. There’s one revealing moment, in fact, where The Artist is too clever for its own good, which is in its use of five minutes of the Bernard Herrmann score from Vertigo. While I don’t feel as strongly about this as Kim Novak apparently does, I agree with Todd McCarthy of the Hollywood Reporter: “It yanks you out of one film and places you in the mindset of another.” It isn’t quite a fatal misstep, but it’s a questionable one, especially when The Artist doesn’t engage the music in any interesting way: as an homage, it’s on the level of one of those novelty reels, with the music from Psycho spliced over a romantic interlude, that the Oscars uses every few years to demonstrate the power of music. Although Hazanavicius quickly recovers, with an inspired title card gag, it makes us wonder for a moment if he’s as smart as he seems. Which is too bad, because the rest of The Artist is the work of a director who is manifestly as smart as they come.
All of man’s misfortune comes from one thing, which is not knowing how to sit quietly in a room alone.
—Blaise Pascal, Pensées
The tale is that Accius, or Attus Navius, a Roman augur, opposed the king Tarquin the Elder, who wished to double the number of senators. Tarquin, to throw ridicule on the angur, sneered at his pretensions of augury, and asked him if he could do what was then in his thoughts. “Undoubtedly,” replied Navius; and Tarquin with a laugh, said, “Why, I was thinking whether I could cut through this whetstone with a razor.” “Cut boldly,” cried Navius, and the whetstone was cleft in two.
1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive voice where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
With less than six weeks remaining until the publication of The Icon Thief, I’ve been abruptly immersed in the details of initial print runs, bookstore placement, and other publishing arcana. The signs so far are good—my publisher has given the novel a commendable push, and I’m really happy with the level of support I’ve seen so far—but obviously there’s no way of knowing what the result will be until the book actually goes on sale. In the meantime, I’ve been doing my best to keep my head down, working on the outline of The Scythian and a few other writing projects, and trying not to obsessively check the rankings on my Amazon page. (In the meantime, I can distract myself with my missing copies of Darwin and Marx, which arrived in the mail this week.)
One bright spot has been an early hint of the potential critical response to the book, and it’s a good one: a starred review in Publishers Weekly, which appeared unexpectedly last Friday. I won’t be posting every review that the book receives, but I thought I’d make an exception in this case: although a review in PW probably isn’t quite as influential as it used to be, it’s still seen, rightly or wrongly, as a harbinger of the book’s prospects, and so a positive notice here is very encouraging. (If nothing else, it may prompt other reviewers to give the novel a closer look as review copies go out next month.) And if a “cerebral, exciting debut” sounds good to you, well, apparently there’s a book coming out soon you might like.
Critics, like the rich, aren’t like you and me. You can’t be a professional film critic, which generally means seeing something like two hundred movies a year, without undergoing a transformation into a different state of being. The job changes you. I should know, because I used to be one. I didn’t quite experience the full metamorphosis—I reviewed maybe eighty movies for a college website in the years 1999 and 2000, followed by two dozen more the following summer at the San Francisco Bay Guardian—but it gave me a fair amount of insight into the curious life of a film critic. Once or twice a week, I’d take the train out to the Copley Place movie theater in Boston, sit in a darkened room with a handful of strangers, mostly men, and scribble illegible notes about movies like Autumn in New York or Mission to Mars—both of which, incidentally, I liked. And in the end, I emerged with the sense that while it wasn’t a bad way to make a living, I was also lucky to get out of there alive.
The first thing I discovered was that there are a lot of bad movies out there. When you’re an ordinary moviegoer, you have the luxury of seeing only what you think you might like, and over time, you develop a decent sense of what you’re going to enjoy—I’ve very rarely paid to see a movie that I absolutely hated. A working critic, on the other hand, is obliged to see everything: action, mumblecore, erotic thrillers, and dramas with Madonna and Rupert Everett. Seeing a large random sample of a given year’s movies inevitably alters your perspective on the culture: there’s just so much out there, unseen by even the most diligent amateur moviegoer, that you start questioning whether anybody besides you can really understand it. Among other things, it occurs to you that many of your friends have never really seen a bad movie. Hearing from people who complain about having been bored by the likes of Haywire, you shake your head and think, “If they only knew…”
Another thing I learned is that mediocrity is often more unbearable than awfulness. I gave a negative review to Fight Club, for instance, and yet I still remember it years later, and there’s no denying that it had some kind of vision, as misguided as it might be. Yet I can’t remember a thing about, say, the Heather Graham comedy Committed, despite having met the director in person and interviewed the cast over the phone. Looking at the list of movies released over the years I was working as a critic, I’m amazed at how many I saw, wrote up, and then promptly forgot: Instinct, Gossip, Crazy in Alabama. Faced with such a schedule, you find yourself hoping for a monstrosity like The Beach, so that at least you won’t be faced with two hours devoid of any interest whatsoever. (One of my first investments as a critic was a watch with a luminous dial, so I could see how much longer I had to sit through
Anywhere But Here Where the Heart Is.)
This, I imagine, is why some critics end up becoming caricatures of themselves. Faced with the prospect of cranking out five hundred words on Big Momma’s House, it isn’t surprising that many critics spend so much ammunition attacking otherwise unobjectionable movies, to the point where that’s the only mode of criticism they understand. It’s also easy to see why a critic can fall all over himself praising a movie that didn’t bore him for two hours, or takes a contrarian position to maintain his own interest, or sanity. It may not be fair, but it’s understandable. Which is why I’m so impressed by critics who manage to remain generous and empathetic year after year, and who can stay open to the possibility of being surprised by greatness. Because that’s the thing: every once in a while, you’re blindsided by something you love, as I was that year with Three Kings or All About My Mother. And sometimes that’s all you need.
Note: Mild spoilers follow for the first season of Downton Abbey.
Time, in television, can be a tricky thing. Because most series are still viewed over the course of several years, the way in which narrative time maps onto the show’s actual duration can present some unexpectedly thorny problems. In general, sitcoms and police procedurals do their best to ignore the passage of time altogether, while teenage soaps and other shows faced with the problem of aging casts tend to cover one year per season, which at least makes intuitive sense. Things get stickier with serialized dramas like Lost or Breaking Bad, in which events that viewers experience over multiple seasons really only cover a few highly eventful weeks or months. And although most shows, whatever their approach to chronology, tend to keep the flow of time more or less consistent, there are also cases like the third season of 24 or the fifth season of Desperate Housewives, in which the internal timeline is abruptly advanced by several years.
I’ve been mulling over these issues while watching the first season of Downton Abbey, which my wife and I just finished. When we first began, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I quickly realized why this series has acquired such a passionate following: for the most part, this is a really compelling show, even for those of us who haven’t seen much drama in the Upstairs, Downstairs mold. Among its many other virtues, it rapidly introduces a huge ensemble cast, so that by the end of the third episode we know at least a little about twenty men and women, which is no small feat. Its Yorkshire country house setting is flexible enough to encompass a wide range of stories, from melodrama to romance to farce. And while there’s rarely much in the way of action, it’s edited with the pace of a thriller, with the show cutting swiftly between parallel storylines that hit their dramatic beats and move on. The result is a show that really sucks you in, and the first five episodes are close to perfect.
Once again, however, we’re presented with the problem of time, which Downton Abbey never really solves to its own satisfaction. The show opens with news of the sinking of the Titanic and ends with the declaration of war against Germany, meaning that the internal chronology of its seven episodes extends over more than two years. Yet the events of the show seem to cover much less time, both subjectively and dramatically: the relationships don’t advance between episodes, and certain subplots, like the question of who has been pilfering bottles from the wine cellar, are stretched out beyond all belief, once you realize how much calendar time has allegedly passed. This becomes a real problem in the sixth episode, in which the chryon “May 1914″ is prominently displayed and a character self-consciously mentions that he’s been at Downton for two years, when it still seems as if he’s just arrived. It’s a jarring effect that throws the entire series off balance, at least to this viewer, until what had seemed almost effortlessly involving suddenly feels artificial and strained.
I can understand why Julian Fellowes, the show’s creator, wanted the first season to be framed by the Titanic and the war, but the fabric of the narrative can’t quite sustain it. (It would have been better, perhaps, if he’d chosen to open the show with something besides the Titanic: Downton’s heirs could have been dispatched in some other way, eight months or so before the war began, and the show wouldn’t have had to sweat so much to make it to August 1914.) By the end of the first season, the wheels are coming off: the second half of the finale, with a dozen plot threads crammed into the last act, is especially weak, with characters we care about left with only a few minutes to finish up their business before the war is declared. Downton Abbey deserves to unfold at its own pace, but can’t avoid being forced into an inconvenient timeline. And while this may serve as a commentary on history, it more likely reflects the slippery nature of television itself.
Last week, I wrote about my enduring fascination with the Great Books of the Western World, having been mildly obsessed with this set ever since first encountering its fifty-four volumes in my high school library. What I didn’t really talk about is how this collection, and the idea of canons and reading lists in general, is intimately tied up with my identity as a writer. I’ve always known that I wanted to be a novelist, and as a result, I spent many years thinking about what a writer’s education ought to look like. What it involved, as best as I could determine, was writing as much as possible; carefully studying one’s own language, and perhaps a few others; exploring a variety of narrative art beyond the printed page, especially film and theater; traveling and seeking out other kinds of life experience; and reading as widely as possible. In my adult life, I’ve often fallen short of these high standards, but I’ve done the best I could. And as far as reading was concerned, even at the age of seventeen, it seemed clear to me that the great books were far from the worst place to start.
So was I right? Reading the great books, as Harold Bloom has pointed out, won’t make us better citizens, but will it make us better writers? The evidence, in my own experience, is mixed: if I’ve learned anything since high school, it’s that an aspiring author will learn more from writing and revising one mediocre novel than reading a semester’s worth of the world’s classics. But if reading great books doesn’t make us better writers, it’s hard to think of anything else that will. As I’ve said before, writing is such a ridiculously competitive activity that a writer has to seek out sources of incremental advantage wherever possible, and it’s hard not to suspect that we might benefit from reading Moby-Dick or Middlemarch or Anna Karenina, even if it’s tricky to pin down why. Consciously or not, most of a writer’s life is spent acquiring the skills that he or she needs to produce good work, and in the great books, we have what looks like a very enticing toolbox, even if it’s up to the individual writer to put these tools to use.
This might be why writers tend to at least be cautiously respectful of the idea of great books. These days, we don’t hear much about the culture wars, perhaps because pundits on both the right and left are worried about being tagged as elitists. It’s worth pointing out, however, that of all the attacks that the great books have sustained over the years, very few have come from professional writers. The reason, I suspect, is that while writers know that there’s something inherently ridiculous about canons and reading lists, they also can’t afford to ignore them, at least not entirely. For most people, reading Virgil or Milton feels nice and virtuous, but it’s hard to see how useful it is, compared to, say, electrical engineering or wood shop. It’s only for the writer that the apparently contradictory goals of liberal education and vocational training are essentially the same. For a novelist who is serious about acquiring the tools that he or she needs, four years at St. John’s College is as practical as a certificate from DeVry.
So am I telling you to read the great books? Not necessarily. A reader who plows dutifully through all fifty-four volumes in the Great Books set may turn out to be a good writer, but is more likely to end up a drudge. Most novelists are more like the fox than the hedgehog; their education is accurate, but unsystematic, with lots of wrong turns and diverting detours. True talent will take inspiration from any source: great careers have been nourished by comic books, television, and the movies, and speaking for myself, I’ve been more inspired by the works of Kubrick, Powell and Pressburger, and the like than by most of the authors I read in Latin and Greek. That said, if you’re not sure where to start, it certainly can’t hurt to begin with a reading list: even as your education takes you farther afield, Tom Jones and Tristram Shandy will always be waiting. In the end, the balance between high art and pop culture, and the canonical and the unsung, is one that every writer needs to discover on his or her own, and the fully equipped toolbox will have room for both.
The frustrating, and exhilarating, thing about the films of Steven Soderbergh is that you never know which Soderbergh you’re going to get. There’s Soderbergh the impeccable craftsman, playful, slightly remote, but still invested in giving the audience a good time, as in Out of Sight, Ocean’s 11, and the brilliant Contagion. Then there’s Soderbergh the deconstructor, the creator of the chilly, often perversely uninviting experiments that dot his filmography from Kafka to The Girlfriend Experience. (One of my favorite Soderbergh movies, Ocean’s Twelve, lies on the uneasy dividing line between the two.) As a result, seeing a Soderbergh film without advance preparation is one of the few real gambles left in moviegoing: sometimes entertaining, sometimes perplexing, but rarely uninteresting. I’ll admit, however, that I went to Haywire hoping to see the former kind of film, a riff by a great director reveling in his own virtuosity, and that it was with a slightly sinking feeling that I realized that the movie would fall squarely in the latter category. I like my Soderbergh chilly, but here, he’s glacial, and in more ways than one.
Of course, the idea of a clinical and narratively austere art house film featuring former mixed martial arts champion Gina Carano is intriguing in itself, and in many ways, Haywire is more fun to think about than to watch. Throughout the film, the reasoning behind Soderbergh’s peculiar choices is always clear, even if they don’t always work. Take the lack of music during the fight scenes. As Soderbergh says to the A.V. Club:
Because we had people who were really doing it, and really could do it, I felt like to drown those sounds out with music, or have them competing with music, would really diminish the fights. It was never intended that we would have music over those fights.There was some pushback over that. There were days, especially for the scene on the beach on the end, where some people were trying to convince me to put score over it, and I just wouldn’t.
As it turns out, both Soderbergh and his critics at the studio were right: the lack of music does highlight the skill and physicality of the performers, but it also saps the movie of momentum whenever it stops for an action sequence. It’s a perfectly justifiable decision, and an oddly principled one, that comes at the expense of the messy compromise between vision and execution that nearly every good movie requires. The same comes with the lack of backstory. Regular readers will know that I hate backstory, but even I wanted slightly more information to ground my understanding of these characters. Haywire is a story of betrayal, with Carano as a private contractor on the run from her own employers, but without any sense of who these people are, it’s hard to care beyond the level of Spy Vs. Spy. As before, it’s a gutsy narrative decision that incidentally undercuts the entire movie. Here, as elsewhere, Soderbergh is just a little too smart for his own good.
None of this would matter if we enjoyed watching the actors, but while Soderbergh stages his fight scenes with panache, he doesn’t devote nearly as much attention to the dialogue or performances. Part of the problem is Carano herself: she’s a striking presence, but with her blank affect and limited range, she’s like Sasha Grey as an action star. Soderbergh surrounds her with capable ringers, but of the supporting cast, only Michael Fassbender, as a treacherous British agent, seems like he’s doing more than dropping by the set for the day. One late sequence, between Ewan McGregor, as Carano’s conniving boss, and Bill Paxton, as her father, is a particular disappointment: Soderbergh strands these two excellent actors together in a remote house, with the promise of a juicy scene to come, but has no idea what to do with them. As the iciness of Soderbergh’s conception drains the life from his cast, it grows increasingly frustrating to watch these actors denied their fair chance to connect with the audience. Soderbergh has always been a director who needs the viewer to meet him halfway, but here, he doesn’t even seem willing to allow that.
The day before seeing Haywire, my wife and I rewatched Soderbergh’s The Limey, one of my favorite movies, and an example of everything Haywire is not. (The same screenwriter, Lem Dobbs, also wrote both films, although you’d never be able to guess it.) Not much happens in The Limey; it’s ninety minutes of scrambled footage spun from little more than style, atmosphere, and the electric charge of a willing cast. Yet every moment of the movie pulses with life: it’s impossible to believe any of it, any more than we can believe in the plot of Haywire, but what’s real enough is the obvious pleasure of everyone involved. Terence Stamp is sensational, of course, but so are Peter Fonda, Luis Guzmán, Nicky Katt, Barry Newman, and many others. And for all the film’s ravishing tricks with editing and time—as when Fonda is introduced with what amounts to a miniature trailer for his character—it isn’t afraid to deliver big moments, including the single best scene in all of Soderbergh’s work. When Stamp picks himself up from the street, dusts himself off, and pulls a second gun from his waistband, we’re suddenly at the heart of movies: pure cinema and pure storytelling. Soderbergh, as much as any director alive, has shown that he can do both. Let’s hope that he does so again.
Your chances of success are directly proportional to the degree of pleasure you derive from what you do…It’s fun to be in the game, and it’s even more fun to win.
—Michael Korda, former editor-in-chief of Simon & Schuster
Libraries are not made; they grow. Your first two thousand volumes present no difficulty, and cost astonishingly little money. Given £400 and five years, and an ordinary man can in the ordinary course, without any undue haste or putting any pressure upon his taste, surround himself with this number of books, all in his own language, and thenceforward have at least one place in the world in which it is possible to be happy.
On this occasion Hemingway told me of a recent trip through the South that he had made in a car with his young son. He had at one point suddenly become aware that he had entered the state of Mississippi: “I realized that we were in the Faulkner country.” At the country hotel where they spent the night, he had the boy go to bed, then had sat up all night himself, with his “gun” on the table in front of him. Two ideas, I believe, were revealed by this story, which he told me with the utmost seriousness: the assumption that Mississippi was inhabited by Faulkner characters and the assumption that Faulkner was a dangerous rival, who would take the same view of Hemingway that Hemingway did of him and, now that he had invaded Faulkner’s territory, might well send some of those characters to do him violence. I thought this was rather queer, but no queerer, perhaps, than some other things that came out in drinking conversations.
—Edmund Wilson, “That Summer in Paris”
It’s no exaggeration to say that one of the most exciting moments of my life occurred at a church book sale in my hometown of Castro Valley, California, when I bought a set of the Great Books of the Western World for only thirty-five dollars. At the age of seventeen, I’d long been fascinated by the Great Books set in my high school library, with their uniform spines and the names of their authors enticingly lettered in gold: Homer, Lucretius, Plotinus, Augustine, not to mention Fourier, Faraday and two volumes of Gibbon. (Later, upon reviewing my own set, I noticed that the volumes for Darwin and Marx were missing, an omission that I note here without comment.) I’d always been a sucker for canons and reading lists, so I rashly vowed, in a column published in my high school newspaper, to read all fifty-four volumes in the two years before graduation. And indeed, for a while, I may have been the only high school junior in the country who was furtively reading Gibbon behind a textbook in calculus class.
More recently, it has become fashionable, in such books as Alex Beam’s A Great Idea at the Time, to dismiss the Great Books project as an inexplicable manifestation of mid-fifties middlebrow Americana. Certainly the set, with its rather prissy air of righteousness, is easy to mock, and there’s no denying the various ways in which it falls short: the complete lack of women; the poor translations of such authors as Virgil and Goethe, chosen mostly because they were in the public domain; the omission of such obvious choices as Martin Luther or Voltaire; the somewhat uninviting format, with its small type and double columns. (“It’s like reading the Bible!” one of my high school friends exclaimed.) There’s the curious Syntopicon, a compendium of what co-editor Mortimer J. Adler deemed to be the greatest ideas in history, from Angel to World, with its comically exhaustive subsections and page references to each of the set’s authors. And there’s the unfortunate fact, over which the editors had little control, that the sets were mostly hawked by traveling encyclopedia salesmen to families that probably never had much of an inclination to read Epictetus or Huygens.
All of these criticisms are fair enough. Yet when I look at my own set of the Great Books, which I recently had shipped from my parents’ garage to my new house in Oak Park, I’m struck above all else by the grandeur of the enterprise. Perhaps it’s because the idea of a publisher printing any set of fifty-four hardcover books, much less a collection like this, seems increasingly laughable these days. Or because the books themselves, now that the political and social circumstances of their origins have fallen away, seem nothing less than beautiful. Speaking from my own experience, I can say what while these books, in practice, may have seemed daunting to a casual reader, this is less important than what they promised to me in high school, and what they still promise today: a gateway into a world of ideas accessible to anyone with the patience to enter. It’s true that in many homes and libraries, these books may have been nothing but furniture, but for all their flaws, it’s hard for me to see them as anything less than what their editors meant them to be: a treasure hoard for the serious reader.
Needless to say, I didn’t end up reading all fifty-four volumes in the two years before I graduated. But over time, the Great Books, in their supposedly unreadable volumes, provided me with my first—and in some cases only—encounters with books and authors like Dante, Sophocles, Herodotus, Marcus Aurelius, Machiavelli, Montaigne, Gilbert’s On the Loadstone, William Harvey’s De Motu Cordis, Gulliver’s Travels, Tom Jones, Boswell’s Life of Johnson, and Moby-Dick. (I still haven’t read all of Gibbon.) More importantly, the books set me on a path that eventually led to a summer program at St. John’s College, one of the few liberal arts institutions that still put the great books at the core of their curriculum, and ultimately to majoring in Classics. My experience has taught me that while the great books, in any form, have their limitations as the heart of one’s education, I haven’t found anything better. And now that these books are back in my life, I’m looking forward to discovering their riches again—as soon as I find Darwin and Marx.
With cartooning, I’m constantly coming up for air, procrastinating, looking for reasons not to be doing it. I spend all day granting myself special dispensation, with “creative process” as my cover story. Carpenters and deli countermen can’t do that, so I think they may feel better about themselves at the end of the day.