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May 22, 2005


Lee told me, and Lee should know as a slightly waifish Armenian woman, that men with my appearance tend to intimidate. Although I tend to notice that people seem to say 'Oh excuse me' a lot unnecessarily in supermarkets, I am completely oblivious to the Large Black Man Effect Field that I apparently generate. Nevertheless, I do recall walking my boss out to the parking lot way back in '92 and her confessing to me that every night she brought a pair of scissors for self-defense.

I just do not have any sense of the danger that women and dweebs must feel at night in areas where bad people might be. However I've always attributed that to street smarts, which I know that I possess; I've never attributed much to my ability to appear intimidating. Sure, I have the homeboy suit and I can dress up to be perfectly at home on the set of American Chopper, but me? Threatening? I chuckle.

Nevertheless, as Matt Yglesias mentions books that he should have read, I begin to wonder about such matters, but it wasn't until somebody mentioned Catcher in the Rye that the angle for this post hit me.

I've always kinda not read books because of the thrill that books give me. Counter-intutitive eh? Until you realize that most of my life I've struggled with my concept of the 'noble arena'. It goes a little something like this. I'm single and I'm living in my two bedroom apartment in Park Slope. I ask myself, self, what should I do this evening? Should I head out to the city or should I stay home and read a book? This is a dilemma because I generally stay home and read the book, which only makes me want to go out to the city and find some people to talk about the book with. Except that there is no place for me to go where anyone ever talks to me about books. In my life, there have been about 12 people who have ever asked me what books am I reading. That includes every job interview, every cocktail party, every poetry reading, every co-worker, blah blah blah. I've lived with this

As far as I'm concerned, the noble arena exists merely as a construction of like minds in cyberspace. It's why I have spent so many years here, because when I walk out that door, apparently people are too busy trying not to piss their pants much less ask me my preferences in literature. It's not as if I hadn't spent the requisite hours trolling Waterstones on Newbury Street in Boston, or Coliseum off Columbus Circle in Manhattan. Then again, I do use the term 'dweebs', so perhaps it's entirely my fault.

There was a cat named Black who once worked for The Nation magazine. We taught Saturday school at St. Luke's up near City College, back in the day. He gave me the impression of being the kind of dweeb to whom I generally refer. I told him that the Nation should run personal ads and publish a version on the Internet. He thought that if I ever had a mind, I had lost it completely. Then again, I thought he lived in the wrong part of the Village and that perhaps his judgements were dismissible. After all, I was right and he wasn't long for The Nation.

On the other hand, I could just shutup and answer the question in the form of, "No I haven't bother to read Dostoyevsky and I don't really think I'm missing out." But the fact of the matter is that I am still at a loss to say what society I am missing out on for not having done so. This has been the case for so long that it makes me doubt two things, firstly the value of the books themselves, and secondly the extent to which the value of those books imparts themselves onto their readers. This is problematic only if those readers are not dweebs and actually do hold court and sway some real flesh and blood places. I remember being told that it helps to know Shakespeare because your boss might drop the phrase 'There is a tide in the affairs of men..' and I should know the implication. More likely I'll hear co-workers mumble quotes from 'Office Space'. And so while I don't tend to hold people in contemtuous disdain, I have rather given up the idea that I'll be hearing from the more literate end of the spectrum outside of my cyberconnections.

My other observation, which I've made before, is that I've never met any black man who said "I am Holden Caufield!" And while I expect that may change over time, and I don't often ask, I have also never met any white man who said "I am Bigger Thomas!". And so perhaps there is a real gap between those who would wax literate in any particular direction.

I am not convinced that some intellectual and cultural unity is a necessity for civil society. Even the sappy Lionel Ritchie knew that everyone finds their own way, somehow, some way, some day. So I suspect we'll all zoom the points familiar and kind even though different books and dreams take us there, and what gets said in American interpretations of English translations of Russian novelists could be recognizeable as a rhymed couplet in a rap I know, or a Gospel song I grew up with. We're all human after all. Experience teaches.mike90-2.jpg

It certainly makes sense from the point of view of academics that if we're ever going to get anywhere, knowledge needs to be codified and ranked. There are roccocos and their are efficiencies, and a troubled world needs efficiency, or so it's been said. So there may be a real sense of a missed mission in all our relatively illiterate heads. But I think we'll all float on alright.

For the record, I wish I had come to understand Maxwell's Equations, and I still believe I could have saved myself a life of questions had I read my basic philosophers. I purchased the Decline and Fall of Rome, but never got anywhere whatsoever, and I'm sure I would like to be, on occasion, the devil quoting the Bible to suit my own ends. But hey, at least I read Ravelstein, and guess what, I'm just like those guys.

Posted by mbowen at May 22, 2005 06:20 PM

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