Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

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Brand awareness

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Over the last few months, I’ve noticed that Stewart Brand, the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog and one of my personal heroes, has been popping up a lot in the press. In his excellent piece earlier this year in The New Yorker on survival prep among the rich, Evan Osnos called Brand to get a kind of sanity check:

At seventy-seven, living on a tugboat in Sausalito, Brand is less impressed by signs of fragility than by examples of resilience…He sees risks in escapism. As Americans withdraw into smaller circles of experience, we jeopardize the “larger circle of empathy,” he said, the search for solutions to shared problems. “The easy question is, How do I protect me and mine? The more interesting question is, What if civilization actually manages continuity as well as it has managed it for the past few centuries? What do we do if it just keeps on chugging?”

More recently, in an article in the same magazine about the Coachella Festival, John Seabrook wrote: “The short-lived first era of rock festivals began in San Francisco. The incubator was Stewart Brand and Ramon Sender’s three-day Trips Festival, a kind of ‘super acid test,’ in Tom Wolfe’s famed account.” The New York Times Magazine published a piece in March on Brand’s efforts to revive extinct species, and just last week, Real Life featured an essay by Natasha Young on the Long Now Foundation.

So why is Brand back in style? Young’s article offers a tempting clue: “The Long Now’s objective is to support the defense of the future against the finite play of selfish actors.” I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that if Donald Trump is the question, Stewart Brand is the answer, although it would be harder to imagine two white males of the same generation—Brand is eight years older than Trump—with less to say to each other. Yet his example is even more damning for those who claim to be following in his footsteps. The historical connections between Silicon Valley and the Catalog have been amply chronicled elsewhere, and much of the language that technology companies use to talk about themselves might have been copied straight from Brand’s work, with its insistence that information and modern tools could improve the lives of individuals and communities. To say that these ideals have been corrupted would be giving his self-appointed successors too much credit. It takes a certain degree of cluelessness to talk about making the world a better place while treating customers as fungible data points and unloading as much risk as possible onto outside parties, but it isn’t even particularly impressive. It’s the kind of evil that comes less out of ruthless efficiency or negative capability than short-term expediency, unexamined notions, lousy incentives, and the desperate hope that somebody involved knows what he or she is doing. Brand was a more capable organizer of time, capital, and talent than any of his imitators, and he truly lived the values that he endorsed. His life stands as a rebuke to the rest of us, and it didn’t lead him to a mansion, but to a houseboat in Sausalito.

Brand matters, in other words, not because he was a better person than most of his contemporaries, but because he was vastly more competent. This fact has a way of being lost, even as we rush to honor a man whose like we might never see again. His legacy can be hard to pin down because he’s simply a guy who got it right, quietly and consistently, for four decades, and because it reflects what seems at first like a confusing array of influences. It includes Buckminster Fuller’s futurism and Norbert Wiener’s cybernetics; the psychedelic fringe of Timothy Leary and Ken Kesey, as flavored by mysticism, Jungian psychology, and Zen Buddhism; Native American culture, which led Tom Wolfe to refer to Brand as “an Indian freak”; and the communalist movement of young, mostly affluent urbanites going back to the land in pursuit of greater simplicity. That’s a lot to keep in your head at once. But it’s also what you’d expect from a naturally curious character who spent years exploring whatever he found interesting. My favorite statement by Brand is what he says about voluntary simplicity:

Personally I don’t like the term…I’m more comfortable with the idea of “right livelihood,” which is one of the folds of the Buddhist Eightfold Path to enlightenment. It’s less of an exhortation than an observation—greedy behavior makes a sour life. The idealism of “Voluntary Simplicity” is okay I suppose, but it obscures what I find far more interesting—the sheer practicality of the exercise.

“Sheer practicality” sums up how I like to think about Brand, who lists the rewards of such an existence: “Time to do your work well enough to be proud of it. Time for an occasional original idea and time to follow it. Time for community.”

Take that recipe and extend it across a lifetime, and you end up with a career like Brand’s, which I’ve been contemplating for most of my life. Before I ended up working on my current nonfiction project, I seriously thought about pitching a book on Brand and the Catalog, simply because I thought it would be good for me. As it turns out, I don’t need to write it: John Markoff, the former technology reporter for the New York Times, is working on a biography of Brand, and Caroline Maniaque-Benton and Meredith Gaglio recently edited the anthology Whole Earth Field Guide. I’d be jealous, if I weren’t also grateful. And Brand’s impact can be seen right here every day. Kevin Kelly, Brand’s protégé, once wrote:

[The] missives in the Catalog were blog postings. Except rather than being published individually on home pages, they were handwritten and mailed into the merry band of Whole Earth editors who would typeset them with almost no editing (just the binary editing of print or not-print) and quickly “post” them on cheap newsprint to the millions of readers who tuned in to the Catalog‘s publishing stream. No topic was too esoteric, no degree of enthusiasm too ardent, no amateur expertise too uncertified to be included…It is no coincidence that the Whole Earth Catalogs disappeared as soon as the web and blogs arrived. Everything the Whole Earth Catalogs did, the web does better.

Personally, I think that there’s a lot to be said for putting out a version on paper, and Kelly evidently came around to the same conclusion, publishing the lovely tribute Cool Tools. But the basic form of the Catalog—excerpts from worthwhile sources interspersed with commentary—is the one that I’ve tried to follow. This blog is a kind of portrait of myself, and although its emphasis has changed a lot over the years, I’d like to think that it has remained fairly consistent in terms of the perspective that it presents. And I owe it more to Stewart Brand than to anybody else.

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

April 20, 2017 at 7:30 am

The tyranny of the calendar

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George R.R. Martin

Note: I’m taking a few days off, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on January 12, 2016.

When a novelist reaches a certain level of commercial success, the charge is inevitably leveled—as it still is against the likes of Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, and most recently George R.R. Martin—that he or she is no longer being edited. And it often seems like the evidence is right before our eyes. The books grow visibly longer, as they did most dramatically in the case of Harry Potter, or they take more installments to cover the same amount of ground, as with A Song of Ice and Fire. Familiar tics, like the folksy voice that King likes to assume, expand into full-blown affectations, and the novels themselves start to seem looser and shaggier. Something has clearly changed, and the underlying assumption is that the writers themselves are to blame: nobody likes being edited, and once their careers have advanced to the point where they carry sufficient financial clout with their publishers, they simply refuse to take any additional notes. As King himself said in an interview from the early eighties:

At this point, I think that if there were any change suggested to me that I didn’t want, all I would need to say would be, “No. I won’t do that.” And it would never be a question of their withdrawing my contract, would it? They’d just finally say, “Well, okay then, don’t do it that way. “Which means, in effect, that if I’m willing to be really intransigent, there’ll be no editing at all.

But the truth, as always, is a little more complicated. The quotation above comes from an interview with King first published in the second volume of the Dream Makers series by Charles Platt. It dates from an intriguing moment in King’s career, around the time of Christine, when he was already a force on bestseller lists but not the institution he later became. And he says of his editorial process during that period:

I like to write three drafts: a first, a second, and what I think of as the editorial draft, when I sit down and take an editor’s criticism and work it through in my own mind, and put the whole book through the typewriter again, and repolish the other stuff as well. But as the successes have mushroomed, it’s been tougher and tougher for me to get my editors to give me time to do that third draft. What I’m really afraid of now is that one of them will say, “I think this is great,” just because it fits their publication schedule. Every year, I’m on a faster and faster track…I am supposed to read the proofs [of Different Seasons] in five days. Now, what if we let a bunch of dumb errors go through? It isn’t a matter of creativity, or trying to do the best book possible, that’s governing things right now—it’s advertising. And that scares the hell out of me, because we’ll fuck up real good one of these days, and then people can say “Steve King writes for money,” and at that point they will be right.

Stephen King

This obviously reflects King’s own perspective on the matter, but it’s still a fascinating point, and it remains relevant when we flash forward more than thirty years to George R.R. Martin. In a blog post from 2009 titled “To My Detractors,” he recounts how he told his publishers that he wouldn’t be able to deliver the next book in the series on time, and he says of their response:

I thought they’d be sick about it…but I have to say, my editors and publishers are great, and they took it with surprising equanimity. (Maybe they knew it before I did.) They already had contingencies in place. They had made plans to speed up production. If I could deliver Winds of Winter by the end of the year, they told me, they could still get it out before the end of March.

Martin didn’t meet that deadline either, of course, and after describing his predicament in more detail, he concludes: “Best guess, based on our previous conversations, is that Bantam (and presumably my British publisher as well) can have the hardcover out within three months of delivery, if their schedules permit.” And although this line wasn’t much discussed in the fury of analysis that ensued, it may be the most astonishing tidbit in the entire post. Even if you just consider the physical challenge of printing a million hardcover copies, three months to take a novel from manuscript to bookstores is insane. With such a huge machine trembling to go into action, something’s got to give—and it’s probably going to be the editing.

What I’m suggesting, in other words, is that the perceived lack of editing in many big bestsellers isn’t due to authorial stubbornness or editorial laziness. Instead, it’s a structural consequence of fitting blockbuster books into a relentless publishing cycle. When you consider how the whole process is being squeezed on one side by the author’s pressure to finish and on the other side by the pressure to deliver the book to readers, it’s no surprise if certain crucial steps get truncated or eliminated along the way. And it makes sense that the first casualty would be editing. Authors often complain that no one really gets what they do, and that’s doubly true for editors. A process that is so opaque to outsiders is bound to fall by the wayside when there’s so much else to consider: you’ve got to drop something to keep on schedule, and it may as well be the editorial phase, which nobody understands anyway. (Which leads me to a crucial point that deserves a blog post of its own: this is also why tentpole movies these days seem to be consistently half an hour too long. There just isn’t the time to edit them properly.) If The Winds of Winter comes out three months after Martin delivers his “final” draft, there’s no way that it gets the edit it deserved: every other stage demands a fixed amount of time to complete, and it’s the edit that ends up paying the price. So when you worry that the books in your favorite series are getting longer and more self-indulgent, you don’t need to blame the editor or the author. You can blame the calendar.

Written by nevalalee

April 17, 2017 at 7:30 am

The Voynich Inheritance

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Sooner or later, if you devote any time to poking around odd corners of the unexplained, you’ll encounter the document known as the Voynich Manuscript. It’s a fifteenth-century codex, often called “the world’s most mysterious book,” consisting of roughly two hundred and forty pages of writing in an unknown alphabet, interspersed with many enigmatic illustrations and diagrams. Last year, the Yale University Press issued the first authorized edition of the complete text, leading to a flurry of renewed interest. After a century of failed attempts to decipher it, however, the conversation around it has shifted from the hope of any solution to its status as an emblem of the unknown. Josephine Livingston of The New Yorker writes that the manuscript “encourages us to sit with the concept of truth and to remember that there are ineluctable mysteries at the bottom of things whose meanings we will never know,” while Dustin Illingworth concludes in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

We revere the Voynich, I think, only insofar as it eludes us. The purpose of this new edition, then, is not to provide definitive answers. Instead, as the historian Deborah Harkness has it, the book is offered as an invitation “to join us at the heart of the mystery.” Despite its pages of cramped writing and sprawling illustrations, the Voynich is perhaps the ultimate carte blanche—the purest form of philological fantasy, a canvas vast enough to contain dreams, conspiracies, hunches, and prophecies. In the company of such rich human engagement, a solution—if one should exist—is merely incidental. May the mystery live on.

Mentioned only in passing in most recent coverage is the figure in the story who has always fascinated me the most, a scholar named William Romaine Newbold who died believing that he had cracked the code. As David Kahn recounts in his masterpiece The Codebreakers, Newbold was a brilliant linguist and cryptanalyst who served as a philosophy professor and former dean of the graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1919, Newbold stumbled across a few pages of the manuscript, and he immediately set to work on it:

Newbold saw microscopic shorthand symbols in the macroscopic characters of the manuscript text and began his decipherment by transliterating them into Roman letters. A secondary text of seventeen different letters resulted. He doubled all but the first and last letters of each section: the secondary text oritur would become the tertiary text or-ri-it-tu-ur. Any of these groups that contained any letters of the word conmuta, plus q, underwent a special substitution. The resultant quaternary text was then “translated”: Newbold replaced the pairs of letters with a single letter, presumably according to a key, which, however, he never made clear. Newbold regarded some letters of this reduced quinary text as equivalent to one another because of phonetic similarity. When required, therefore, he interchanged d and t, for example, b, f, and p, o and u, and so on. Finally, Newbold anagrammed the letters of this senary text to produce the alleged plaintext in Latin.

Two years later, Newbold announced his results, which were extraordinary. The author of the manuscript, he claimed, was the medieval philosopher Roger Bacon, who stood revealed as the greatest scientist of all time: “Bacon had recognized the Great Nebula in Andromeda as a spiral galaxy, identified biological cells and their nuclei, and come close to seeing the union of the sperm with the ovum. He had therefore to have not merely speculated about but to have actually constructed a microscope and a telescope.” Newbold also offered what seemed like a strong argument in favor of the authenticity of his results, as Kahn recounts:

Newbold’s cryptanalysis of a caption on a sketch that somewhat resembles a pinwheel and that he took to represent the Andromeda nebula reads in part: “In a concave mirror I saw a star in the form of a snail…between the navel of Pegasus, the girdle of Andromeda, and the head of Cassiopeia.” Newbold asserted that his solution could not be subjective because “I did not know at the time [of solution] that any nebula would be found within the region thus defined.”

It was, of course, utter nonsense. One critic pointed out that Newbold’s system of letter pairs, as in or-ri-it-tu-ur, worked in only one direction: it could be deciphered, but there was no possible way that it could be enciphered in the first place. Anagramming chunks of over a hundred characters at a time, as Newbold did, could result in almost any text you wanted. And the “microscopic shorthand symbols” were nothing but “the breaking up of the thick ink on the rough surface of the vellum into shreds and filaments that Newbold had imagined were individual signs.”

On its surface, it’s yet another cautionary tale of misguided obsession, like so many other stories from the fringes of reason. But what sticks with me the most is how inseparable Newbold’s brilliance was from his delusions. As Kahn points out:

How, then, to explain Newbold’s cryptanalyzing information that he said he never knew, such as the position of the spiral nebula? The answer is that he must have known it, though subconsciously. Newbold, a scholar of immense erudition who casually learned the Catalan language and read a thousand pages in it in pursuit of a minor point of the solution, must have swept up that detail in his extensive studies and slipped it into the depths of his brain, where it lay hidden from his active mind until the solution drew it forth. No one ever questioned Newbold’s integrity; he was a victim, [philologist John Matthews] Manly said, “of his own intense enthusiasm and his learned and ingenious subconscious.”

This seems reasonable enough, although I’d propose a slightly different explanation: Newbold surely must have checked his solutions before publication, and a plaintext that failed to fit known scientific facts was either revised or quietly dropped. Either way, only a genius could have been so misguided, and Newbold’s case is just an extreme version of a tendency that we find in many forms of scholarship. The impulse that led him to see a nebula that wasn’t there isn’t so different from the pitfalls confronting literary critics, historians, biographers, and other scholars with a mass of material on which to exercise their ingenuity and intuition. As Roger Bacon, the real one, once wrote, one of the greatest stumbling blocks to wisdom is “the hiding of our own ignorance while making a display of our apparent knowledge.” Newbold happened to misread his text in an obvious way, but he wasn’t the first—or the last—scholar to fall victim to the perils of cleverness.

The art of the anti-blurb

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In a recent issue of The New Yorker, the critic Dan Chiasson offers up an appraisal of the poet Bill Knott, who died in 2014. To be honest, I’d either never heard of Knott or forgotten his name, but I suspect that he might have been pleased by this. Knott, who taught for decades at Emerson College, spent his entire career sticking resolutely to the edges of the literary world, distancing himself from mainstream publishers and electing to distribute his poems himself in cheap editions on Amazon. Chiasson relates:

The books that did make it to print usually featured brutal “anti-blurbs,” which Knott culled from reviews good and bad alike: his work was “grotesque,” “malignant,” “tasteless,” and “brainless,” according to some of the big names of the day.

Here are a few more of the blurbs he reprinted: “Bill Knott’s ancient, academic ramblings are part of what’s wrong with poetry today. Ignore the old bastard.” “Bill Knott bores me to tears.” “Bill Knott should be beaten with a flail.” “Bill Knott’s poems are so naïve that the question of their poetic quality hardly arises…Mr. Knott practices a dead language.” According to another reminiscence by the editor Robert P. Baird, Knott sometimes took it even further: “On his various blogs, which spawned and deceased like mayflies, he posted collages of rejection slips and a running tally of anti-blurbs: positive reviews and compliments that he’d carved up with ellipses to read like pans.” Even his actual negative reviews weren’t enough—Knott felt obliged to create his own.

The idea of a writer embracing his attackers has an obvious subversive appeal. Norman Mailer, revealingly, liked the idea so much that he indulged in it no fewer than three times, and far less nimbly than Knott did. After the release of The Deer Park, he ran an ad in The Village Voice that amounted to a parody of the usual collage of laudatory quotes—“The year’s worst snake pit in fiction,” “Moronic mindlessness,” “A bunch of bums”—and noted in fine print at the bottom, just in case we didn’t get the point: “This advertisement was paid for by Norman Mailer.” Two decades later, he decided to do the same thing with Marilyn, mostly as a roundabout way of responding to a single bad review by Pauline Kael. As the editor Robert Markel recalls in Peter Manso’s oral biography:

The book was still selling well when [Mailer] came in with his idea of a full two-page ad. Since he was now more or less in the hands of [publisher] Harold Roth, there was a big meeting in Harold’s office. What he wanted to do was exactly what he’d done with The Village Voice ad for The Deer Park: present all the positive and negative reviews, including Kael’s, setting the two in opposition. Harold was very much against it. He thought the two pages would be a stupid waste of money, but more, it was the adversarial nature of the ad as Norman conceived it.

Ultimately, Mailer persuaded Roth to play along: “He implied he’d made a study of this kind of thing and knew what he was talking about.” And five years down the line, he did it yet again with his novel Ancient Evenings, printing up a counter display for bookstores with bad reviews for Moby Dick, Anna Karenina, Leaves of Grass, and his own book, followed by a line with a familiar ring to it: “The quotations in this poster were selected by Norman Mailer.”

This compulsiveness about reprinting his bad reviews, and his insistence that everyone know that he had conceived and approved of it, is worth analyzing, because it’s very different from Knott’s. Mailer’s whole life was built on sustaining an image of intellectual machismo that often rested on unstable foundations, and embracing the drubbings that his books received was a way of signaling that he was tougher than his critics. Like so much else, it was a pose—Mailer hungered for fame and attention, and he felt his negative reviews as keenly as anyone. When Time ran a snarky notice of his poetry collection Deaths for the Ladies, Mailer replied, “in a fury of incalculable pains,” with a poem of his own, in which he compared himself to a bull in the ring and the reviewer to a cowardly picador. He recalled in Existential Errands:

The review in Time put iron into my heart again, and rage, and the feeling that the enemy was more alive than ever, and dirtier in the alley, and so one had to mend, and put on the armor, and go to war, go out to war again, and try to hew huge strokes with the only broadsword God ever gave you, a glimpse of something like Almighty prose.

This is probably a much healthier response. But in the contrast between Mailer’s expensive advertisements for himself and Knott’s photocopied chapbooks, you can see the difference between a piece of performance art and a philosophy of life truly lived. Of the two, Mailer ends up seeming more vulnerable. As he admits: “I had secret hopes, I now confess, that Deaths for the Ladies would be a vast success at the bar of poetry.”

Of course, Knott’s attitude was a bit of a pose as well. Chiasson once encountered his own name on Knott’s blog, which referred to him as “Chiasson-the-Assassin,” which indicates that the poet’s attitude toward critics was something other than indifference. But it was also a pose that was indistinguishable from the man inside, as Elisa Gabbert, one of Kott’s former students, observed: “It was kind of a goof, but that was his whole life. It was a really grand goof.” And you can judge them by their fruits. Mailer’s advertisements are brilliant, but the product that they’re selling is Mailer himself, and you’re clearly supposed to depart with the impression that the critics have trashed a major work of art. After reading Knott’s anti-blurbs, you end up questioning the whole notion of laudatory quotes itself, which is a more productive kind of skepticism. (David Lynch pulled off something similar when he printed an ad for Lost Highway with the words: “Two Thumbs Down!” In response, Roger Ebert wrote: “It’s creative to use the quote in that way…These days quotes in movie ads have been devalued by the ‘quote whores’ who supply gushing praise to publicists weeks in advance of an opening.” The situation with blurbs is slightly different, but there’s no question that they’ve been devalued as well—a book without “advance praise” looks vaguely suspicious, so the only meaningful fact about most blurbs is that they exist.) Resistance to reviews is so hard for a writer to maintain that asserting it feels like a kind of superpower. If asked, Mailer might have replied, like Bruce Banner in The Avengers: “That’s my secret. I’m always angry.” But I have a hunch that the truth is closer to what Wolverine says when Rogue asks if it hurts when his claws come out: “Every time.”

The Berenstain Barrier

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If you’ve spent any time online in the last few years, there’s a decent chance that you’ve come across some version of what I like to call the Berenstain Bears enigma. It’s based on the fact that a sizable number of readers who recall this book series from childhood remember the name of its titular family as “Berenstein,” when in reality, as a glance at any of the covers will reveal, it’s “Berenstain.” As far as mass instances of misremembering are concerned, this isn’t particularly surprising, and certainly less bewildering than the Mandela effect, or the similar confusion surrounding a nonexistent movie named Shazam. But enough people have been perplexed by it to inspire speculation that these false memories may be the result of an errant time traveler, à la Asimov’s The End of Eternity, or an event in which some of us crossed over from an alternate universe in which the “Berenstein” spelling was correct. (If the theory had emerged a few decades earlier, Robert Anton Wilson might have devoted a page or two to it in Cosmic Trigger.) Even if we explain it as an understandable, if widespread, mistake, it stands as a reminder of how an assumption absorbed in childhood remains far more powerful than a falsehood learned later on. If we discover that we’ve been mispronouncing, say, “Steve Buscemi” for all this time, we aren’t likely to take it as evidence that we’ve ended up in another dimension, but the further back you go, the more ingrained such impressions become. It’s hard to unlearn something that we’ve believed since we were children—which indicates how difficult it can be to discard the more insidious beliefs that some of us are taught from the cradle.

But if the Berenstain Bears enigma has proven to be unusually persistent, I suspect that it’s because many of us really are remembering different versions of this franchise, even if we believe that we aren’t. (You could almost take it as a version of Hilary Putnam’s Twin Earth thought experiment, which asks if the word “water” means the same thing to us and to the inhabitants of an otherwise identical planet covered with a similar but different liquid.) As I’ve recently discovered while reading the books aloud to my daughter, the characters originally created by Stan and Jan Berenstain have gone through at least six distinct incarnations, and your understanding of what this series “is” largely depends on when you initially encountered it. The earliest books, like The Bike Lesson or The Bears’ Vacation, were funny rhymed stories in the Beginner Book style in which Papa Bear injures himself in various ways while trying to teach Small Bear a lesson. They were followed by moody, impressionistic works like Bears in the Night and The Spooky Old Tree, in which the younger bears venture out alone into the dark and return safely home after a succession of evocative set pieces. Then came big educational books like The Bears’ Almanac and The Bears’ Nature Guide, my own favorites growing up, which dispensed scientific facts in an inviting, oversized format. There was a brief detour through stories like The Berenstain Bears and the Missing Dinosaur Bone, which returned to the Beginner Book format but lacked the casually violent gags of the earlier installments. Next came perhaps the most famous period, with dozens of books like Trouble With Money and Too Much TV, all written, for the first time, in prose, and ending with a tidy, if secular, moral. Finally, and jarringly, there was an abrupt swerve into Christianity, with titles like God Loves You and The Berenstain Bears Go to Sunday School.

To some extent, you can chalk this up to the noise—and sometimes the degeneration—that afflicts any series that lasts for half a century. Incremental changes can lead to radical shifts in style and tone, and they only become obvious over time. (Peanuts is the classic example, but you can even see it in the likes of Dennis the Menace and The Family Circus, both of which were startlingly funny and beautifully drawn in their early years.) Fashions in publishing can drive an author’s choices, which accounts for the ups and downs of many a long career. And the bears only found Jesus after Mike Berenstain took over the franchise after the deaths of his parents. Yet many critics don’t bother making these distinctions, and the ones who hate the Berenstain Bears books seem to associate them entirely with the Trouble With Money period. In 2005, for instance, Paul Farhi of the Washington Post wrote:

The larger questions about the popularity of the Berenstain Bears are more troubling: Is this what we really want from children’s books in the first place, a world filled with scares and neuroses and problems to be toughed out and solved? And if it is, aren’t the Berenstain Bears simply teaching to the test, providing a lesson to be spit back, rather than one lived and understood and embraced? Where is the warmth, the spirit of discovery and imagination in Bear Country? Stan Berenstain taught a million lessons to children, but subtlety and plain old joy weren’t among them.

Similarly, after Jan Berenstain died, Hanna Rosin of Slate said: “As any right-thinking mother will agree, good riddance. Among my set of mothers the series is known mostly as the one that makes us dread the bedtime routine the most.”

Which only tells me that neither Farhi or Rosin ever saw The Spooky Old Tree, which is a minor masterpiece—quirky, atmospheric, gorgeously rendered, and utterly without any lesson. It’s a book that I look forward to reading with my daughter. And while it may seem strange to dwell so much on these bears, it gets at a larger point about the pitfalls in judging any body of work by looking at a random sampling. I think that Peanuts is one of the great artistic achievements of the twentieth century, but it would be hard to convince anyone who was only familiar with its last two decades. You can see the same thing happening with The Simpsons, a series with six perfect seasons that threaten to be overwhelmed by the mediocre decades that are crowding the rest out of syndication. And the transformations of the Berenstain Bears are nothing compared to those of Robert A. Heinlein, whose career somehow encompassed Beyond This Horizon, Have Spacesuit—Will Travel, Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land, and I Will Fear No Evil. Yet there are also risks in drawing conclusions from the entirety of an artist’s output. In his biography of Anthony Burgess, Roger Lewis notes that he has read through all of Burgess’s work, and he asks parenthetically: “And how many have done that—except me?” He’s got a point. Trying to internalize everything, especially over a short period of time, can provide as false a picture as any subset of the whole, and it can result in a pattern that not even the author or the most devoted fan would recognize. Whether or not we’re from different universes, my idea of Bear Country isn’t the same as yours. That’s true of any artist’s work, and it hints at the problem at the root of all criticism: What do we talk about when we talk about the Berenstain Bears?

Quote of the Day

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Few moderns are good mental economists; given the limited capacity of human memory, the limited length of human life, it becomes ever more vital to select; and to find a principle of selection…It seems to me, then, mere common sense never to undertake a piece of work, or read a book, without asking, “Is it worth the amount of life it will cost?”

F.L. Lucas, The Search For Good Sense

Written by nevalalee

April 3, 2017 at 7:30 am

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