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15 AUGUST, 2012

Nick Hornby on Your Cultural Snobbery

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What Céline Dion has to do with Jonathan Franzen and the construction of intellectual identity.

“Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider,” Francis Bacon advised in 1597. “One should read less and less, not more and more,” Henry Miller remarked as he reflected on a lifetime of reading in 1952.

Roughly half a millennium after Bacon and half a century after Miller, beloved critic and author Nick Hornby, whose Stuff I’ve Been Reading column in Believer never ceases to delight, captures our relationship with reading even more succinctly and unapologetically: “Read what you enjoy, not what bores you.” More Baths Less Talking: Notes from the Reading Life of a Celebrated Author Locked in Battle with Football, Family, and Time Itself (public library) collects Hornby’s Believer writings over the past two years, spanning everything from the devastating effects of the World Cup to Marshall McLuhan to the reading life as memento mori — a witty and illuminating blueprint to the habits and how-to’s of reading good books well.

In one particular essay, Hornby explores our distorted dichotomy of cultural taste by discussing Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste:

Why does everyone hate Céline Dion? Except, of course, it’s not everyone, is it? She’s sold more albums than just about anyone alive. Everyone loves Céline Dion, if you think about it. So actually, he asks the question: why do I and my friends and all rock critics and everyone likely to be reading this book and magazines like the Believer hate Céline Dion? And the answers he finds are profound, provocative, and leave you wondering who the hell you actually are — especially if, like many of us around these parts, you set great store by cultural consumption as an indicator of both character and, let’s face it, intelligence. We are cool people! We read Jonathan Franzen and we listen to Pavement, but we also love Mozart and Seinfeld! Hurrah for us!

Hornby cites Wilson’s swift summation of cultural snobbery:

It’s always other people following crowds, whereas my own taste reflects my specialness.

(Still, cue in William Gibson on taste as the building block of the “personal microculture” that defines us creatively and intellectually.)

More Baths Less Talking comes on the heels of three previous volumes of Hornby’s collected Believer columns, all excellent — The Polysyllabic Spree (2004), Housekeeping vs. the Dirt (2006), and Shakespeare Wrote for Money (2008).

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15 AUGUST, 2012

A List of “Rare Things” From 11th-Century Japanese Court Lady Sei Shonagon, World’s First Blogger

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“Two women, let alone a man and a woman, who vow themselves to each other forever, and actually manage to remain on good terms to the end.”

Between the 990s and the early 11th century, Japanese court lady Sei Shonagon set out to record her observations of and musings on life, Japanese culture, the intricacies of the human condition. Her writings were eventually collected and published in The Pillow Book (public library) in 1002. An archive of pictures and illustrations, records of interesting events in court, and daily personal thoughts, many in list-form, this was arguably the world’s first “blog” by conceptual format and Sh?nagon the world’s first blogger*.

Among her lists was this lovely meditation on “rare things”:

71. Rare Things–

A son-in-law who’s praised by his wife’s father. Likewise, a wife who’s loved by her mother-in-law.

A pair of silver tweezers that can actually pull out hairs properly.

A retainer who doesn’t speak ill of his master.

A person who is without a single quirk. Someone who’s superior in both appearance and character, and who’s remained utterly blameless throughout his long dealings with the world.

You never find an instance of two people living together who continue to be overawed by each other’s excellence and always treat each other with scrupulous care and respect, so such a relationship is obviously a great rarity.

Copying out a tale or a volume of poems without smearing any ink on the book you’re copying from. If you’re copying it from some beautiful bound book, you try to take immense care, but somehow you always manage to get ink on it.

Two women, let alone a man and a woman, who vow themselves to each other forever, and actually manage to remain on good terms to the end.

For a related treat, see these 5 vintage versions of modern social media.

* Thanks to reader Paul Simon for the tip

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14 AUGUST, 2012

Charles Darwin’s List of the Pros and Cons of Marriage

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“My God, it is intolerable to think of spending one’s whole life, like a neuter bee, working, working, & nothing after all.”

“The day of days!,” wrote 29-year-old Charles Darwin in his journal on November 11, 1838, after his cousin, Emma Wedgwood, accepted his marriage proposal. But the legendary naturalist wasn’t always this single-minded about the union. Just a few months earlier, he had scribbled on the back of a letter from a friend a carefully considered list of pros (“constant companion,” “charms of music & female chit-chat”) and cons (“means limited,” “no books,” “terrible loss of time”) regarding marriage and its potential impact on his work. The list, found in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, Volume 2: 1837-1843 (public library) and also available online in the excellent Darwin Correspondence Project, was dated April 7, 1838, and bespeaks the timeless, and arguably artificial, cultural tension between family and career, love and work, heart and head.

If not marry Travel. Europe, yes? America????

If I travel it must be exclusively geological United States, Mexico Depend upon health & vigour & how far I become Zoological

If I dont travel. — Work at transmission of Species — Microscope simplest forms of life — Geology. ?.oldest formations?? Some experiments — physiological observation on lower animals

B Live in London for where else possible[6] in small house, near Regents Park –keep horse –take Summer tours Collect specimens some line of Zoolog: Speculations of Geograph. range, & Geological general works. — Systematiz. — Study affinities.

If marry — means limited, Feel duty to work for money. London life, nothing but Society, no country, no tours, no large Zoolog. Collect. no books. Cambridge Professorship, either Geolog. or Zoolog. — comply with all above requisites — I could not systematiz zoologically so well. — But better than hybernating in country, & where? Better even than near London country house. — I could not indolently take country house & do nothing — Could I live in London like a prisoner? If I were moderately rich, I would live in London, with pretty big house & do as (B), but could I act thus with children & poor? No — Then where live in country near London; better, but great obstacles to science & poverty. Then Cambridge, better, but fish out of water, not being Professor & poverty. Then Cambridge Professorship, — & make best of it, do duty as such & work at spare times — ¶ My destiny will be Camb. Prof. or poor man; outskirts of London, some small Square &c: — & work as well as I can

I have so much more pleasure in direct observation, that I could not go on as Lyell does, correcting & adding up new information to old train & I do not see what line can be followed by man tied down to London. —

In country, experiment & observations on lower animals, — more space –

Several weeks later, in July of 1838, he revisited the subject, with another meditation on the value of a life-partner (“better than a dog anyhow”):

This is the Question [circled in pencil]

Marry

Children — (if it Please God) — Constant companion, (& friend in old age) who will feel interested in one, — object to be beloved & played with. — better than a dog anyhow.– Home, & someone to take care of house — Charms of music & female chit-chat. — These things good for one’s health. — but terrible loss of time. —

My God, it is intolerable to think of spending one’s whole life, like a neuter bee, working, working, & nothing after all. — No, no won’t do. — Imagine living all one’s day solitarily in smoky dirty London House. — Only picture to yourself a nice soft wife on a sofa with good fire, & books & music perhaps — Compare this vision with the dingy reality of Grt. Marlbro’ St.

Not Marry

Freedom to go where one liked — choice of Society & little of it. — Conversation of clever men at clubs — Not forced to visit relatives, & to bend in every trifle. — to have the expense & anxiety of children — perhaps quarelling — Loss of time. — cannot read in the Evenings — fatness & idleness — Anxiety & responsibility — less money for books &c — if many children forced to gain one’s bread. — (But then it is very bad for ones health[19] to work too much)

Perhaps my wife wont like London; then the sentence is banishment & degradation into indolent, idle fool –

He then produces his conclusion:

Marry — Mary — Marry Q.E.D.

…and moves on to the next question:

It being proved necessary to Marry

When? Soon or Late

The Governor says soon for otherwise bad if one has children — one’s character is more flexible –one’s feelings more lively & if one does not marry soon, one misses so much good pure happiness. —

But then if I married tomorrow: there would be an infinity of trouble & expense in getting & furnishing a house, –fighting about no Society –morning calls –awkwardness –loss of time every day. (without one’s wife was an angel, & made one keep industrious). Then how should I manage all my business if I were obliged to go every day walking with my wife. — Eheu!! I never should know French, –or see the Continent –or go to America, or go up in a Balloon, or take solitary trip in Wales –poor slave. –you will be worse than a negro — And then horrid poverty, (without one’s wife was better than an angel & had money) — Never mind my boy — Cheer up — One cannot live this solitary life, with groggy old age, friendless & cold, & childless staring one in ones face, already beginning to wrinkle. — Never mind, trust to chance –keep a sharp look out — There is many a happy slave –

Page from the graphic-novel biography of Darwin. Click image for more.

Six months later, the two were married. They had ten children and remained together until Darwin’s death in 1882 — a beautiful antidote to the cultural myth that love and meaningful work can’t coexist. As Maira Kalman wisely put it, “in the end, okay, it’s love and it’s work — what else could there possibly be?”

The Paris Review

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