Monday, September 26, 2011

Feeling Lonely

The Adventures of Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth by F. C. Ware is one of those heart-breakingly warm stories of the way loneliness can transmit itself through three generations.  The title character is a painfully awkward adult, almost incapable of human interaction because of a complete lack of the ability to screw up enough courage to talk to anyone.  One day our hero gets a letter from the father he never met, and we then discover the life of his father, and his grandfather through a series of awkward interactions and flashbacks to his grandfather’s similarly heart-breaking childhood.  The story is quite well-told, full of poignant moments which never descend to the maudlin.  It’s hard not to root for Jimmy Corrigan even though you know that there is no way his life will never really be any better than it is at the outset.  It’s hard not to feel the shock of disappointment when you gradually learn about his grandfather’s life.  It’s hard not to be drawn into sympathy with Jimmy’s father even though, on the face of it, there really isn’t much with which to sympathize.  And the other characters who show up throughout the story are drawn is a similarly affecting way.  This is the story of humanity: lost, isolated, and desperately lonely, but thoroughly incapable of finding a solution to the eternal human quest for love.

And, by the way, The Adventures of Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth is a comic book.

The combination of the details in the last two paragraphs elevate this story from what is a good story well told to a harbinger of the future.  This is an attempt at high literature.  There are no superheroes or talking animals.  There is nothing in this story that wouldn’t fit into a conventional novel.  While I have read Great comic books before (truly Great as in potentially Great Books great), they all had some trappings of the genre from which they were born (The Sandman with the fantastic; Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns with superheroes, Maus with the mice—mind, these may not be Great Books, but at least they have the potential).  This story has none of that.  And that make it interesting.  The other attempts at straight-forward literature I have seen in the comic book form all had stories which would not have stood up in another medium.  This one does.  And the art enhances the story immensely.  Don’t get me wrong; I don’t think this book is Great Books status at all—it’s very good, not Great.  But, this book is paving the way for something new.  I am now convinced that sometime in the not too distant future, we will see the Madame Bovary of comic books.  I am not sure what it will look like; but it will be extraordinary.

Thinking about the Madame Bovary of comic books, made me wonder about other future comic equivalents.  I had the shock to realize that there is no Dickens equivalent in the comic book world—that is really odd when you think about it.  A Dickensonian story, with those perfectly drawn caricatures is perfect for the comic book form.  Yet, I don’t even know of an attempt along those lines.  (I am not talking about comic versions of Dickens—such pale derivatives don’t interest me—I am talking about the literary equivalent of Dickens in comic book form.)

And while on the subject of comic books, here are four other reviews of books I have read recently.

1. Miller, Ronin
This is fairly early Frank Miller.  It made me realize what defines a Frank Miller work.  Miller is the comic book artist of violence.  I’d be shocked it that hasn’t been noted endlessly before, but it just occurred to me.  Miller’s work explores the nature of violence in book after book.  At his best (Dark Knight Returns, Batman: Year One) these reflections are riveting.  Ronin is pretty good.  The story gets a bit silly over time, but it never completely loses its moorings.  The book also gets bonus points because how could a story about a samurai warrior in a science fiction age not be inherently fascinating?

2. Eisner, The Best of the Spirit
This is a collection of, a the title suggests, the best Spirit stories.  The Spirit was one of the earliest superhero comics.  It was a seven page insert in the Sunday paper back in the 40’s (1940’s, that is).  This book is of historical interest; it is amazing how much Eisner did in seven pages.  In fact, many of these stories have a much plot as the longer comics of the 1970’s, which I am afraid is a statement of the general quality of 1970’s stories as well as a statement about Eisner’s master of being succinct.  The stories themselves are often quite clever.  Nothing jaw-droppingly great here, but well worth the time if you are interested in the history of the comic book. 

3.  Wald, Kingdom Come
I wanted to like this book.  I really did.  I have tried to convince myself that it was good.  I haven’t been all that successful.  The basic plot; the superheroes of our world retire from the scene as people demand increasingly violent and brutal superheroes.  The next generation of superheroes starts off as crowd-pleasers—they are willing to do things like actually kill supervillians—but over time, they grow bored and start turning the world into giant playground of destruction. So, the Heroes of old, led, obviously, by Superman, return to try to make things right.  Endless pontificating.  Endless promises of a great moral choice that must be made, but which when the crucial moment comes, is never quite made.  Endless pontificating about why we need superheroes.  And in the end, it all adds up to very little.  There are some nice touches here and there—Batman is old and seriously injured, for example—but overall, my overwhelming impression was disappointment.

4. Grant, Odysseus: The Rebel
I found this book on the free book shelf at the MHC library, so I picked it up and read it.  I paid too much for it.  Awful does not begin to describe this book.  Grant tries to rework the story of Odysseus, but forgets to introduce anything interesting and somehow leaves out everything that makes the story of Odysseus a good story.  Couple that with some bizarre attempt to turn the whole story into a statement about how man should rebel against God, and this is just a mess.  The funniest part:  The book was published by  Big Head Press, which bills itself as publishing “thoughtful stories.”  On the back cover, they write:  “For mature readers:  If you’re not mature, put this book back on the shelf and go read a story about super-powered mutants or something.”  The funny part—the worst X-Men comic book ever written is better than this comic book.  I can’t decide whether to put this back on the free book shelf in the library or throw it away so that nobody else will be burdened by reading it.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

An assortment of oddities

1. I recently noted that the Wikipedia entry on Frost’s “A Masque of Reason” had some errors.  I then wondered whether noting that fact would prompt any reader of this blog to fix the entry.  The result surprised me.  Who knew that people who read this blog have a sense of humor?  If you want a laugh, look at the current version of the entry.  Now imagine the poor high school student who for some reason was assigned this poem, and uses that entry as a source.

2. Someone did fix the quotation in the Wikipedia entry, but to the Person or Persons Unknown (though I have my Suspicions) fixing this entry, Job’s wife does not complain about her punishment when she was accused of witchcraft.  Job’s wife complains that a friend of hers, the witch of Endor, was burned for witchcraft.  That is when God notes “That is not/Of record in my Note Book.”  How the original writer of the Wikipedia entry missed that fact is quite beyond my Powers of Comprehension.

3. Speaking of oddities of the blog.  My post on Common Sense is now in the top 5 if you do a Google search for “The cause of America is the cause of all mankind” or anyhting along those lines.  I think there is a school in Pensacola, Florida that assigned an essay on that quotation—either than or people in Pensacola, Florida are really interested in Thomas Paine.

4. For the past week I have been listening to Arcade Fire’s album The Suburbs.  (The deluxe edition—Amazon Deal of the Day, obviously—seriously, that is the only way I buy music any more--$4 for the album!)  I liked Neon Bible—the ethereal organ was interesting.  I can’t figure out whether I like The Suburbs or not—it won the Grammy, so somebody obviously thinks it’s good.  But, I keep going back and forth on whether it is interesting or monotonous. 

5. Speaking of getting a second album; Steve Martin’s The Crow is really good—he’s a great banjo player.  But, then the next album, Rare Bird Alert is just OK; I don’t like it nearly as much.  Though, the latter album does have the immortal song, “King Tut.”  I still love that song—I remember listening to it endlessly at Randy’s house (he had a copy on cassette) when it originally came out.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Lazing Away

Some books force the recognition that my life really is pretty simple and dull—and I really like it that way.  My tutorial just read Huckleberry Finn (by Mark Twain, but you knew that (well, at least I hope you knew that)).  The discussion was, as always in tutorials, quite interesting.  At one point, I made an impassioned plea for Tom Sawyer’s love of Adventure; Tom wants to turn everything into an adventure, and yet none of the students wanted to join Tom in a life like that.  Truth be told, I also would not want a life of Adventure.  Why not?  Adventure is invigorating, exciting, and life-enhancing.  And yet, I’ll pass.  One student mentioned that after a vacation, it’s just nice to go back home—I realized that all in all, if it were entirely up to me, I don’t know that I would ever get around to going on a vacation in the first place.  (I do go on vacations, but that’s because Janet really likes to get away and go do something different.)

But, while I have a hard time summoning up my inner Tom Sawyer, I have a really easy time summoning up my inner Huck.  Huck just walks away from all responsibilities, floats down a river and deals with whatever comes his way.  I like that idea a lot.  I would really enjoy heading off to the mountains with a big stack of books and no responsibilities.  Yet, none of the students in the tutorial liked that idea at all; they are all weighed down with a world of expectations, both from others and themselves, about what they need to do.  I suppose I too am weighed down by responsibilities—having a family and a mortgage are responsibilities—and so, I too, like them, don’t just wander off to the river and start floating.  But, some days, I’d like to.

Huckleberry Finn is a Great Book.  Much to my surprise, none of the students in the tutorial were all that enamored with it; they all thought it was good, but none of them was enraptured.  I really like it—it’s funny and deep.  It makes me think.  This must be the 5th or 6th time I’ve read it, and I still had a marvelous time traveling with Huck.  I have no doubt I’ll read it again someday.
Strangely, I do not have the same feeling about Tom Sawyer (the book, not the character).  I’ve only read that book once.  I always think I should reread it, but I never get around to it.  Yes, I know TS does not have nearly the depth of HF; I have never seen Tom Sawyer on a list of Great Books.  But even still—I like reading Twain, I like the characters, so why don’t I really want to reread Tom Sawyer?
Tom Sawyer also prompted a song I rather like—but the song never makes me want to reread the book either.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Right to Copy

File this under the title of: Raging battle about the Future of Civilization which you didn’t even know was a) a big battle or b) something important at all.

The topic:  Copyright Law

And if Mark Helprin had his way, you would not have yawned at that last paragraph.  His book, Digital Barbarism: A Writer’s Manifesto is a strikingly impassioned argument in favor of lengthening the time in which a work is under copyright protection.  Helprin feel strongly about this—very strongly.  There are people, many people, who feel strongly that copyright should be abolished altogether.  Helprin has no patience for those who want to end copyright.  No patience at all.

Helprin’s argument is solid—indeed, it is really hard to argue with the basic point he is making.  Ending copyright is pretty much the same as theft—why shouldn’t I own the product of my work if the work is writing instead of something tangible?  As a result, this book is too long—way too long.  The short article version (from The New York Times and expanded in the Claremont Review of Books) is better because it makes the main argument without all the fuss.  So, why the book?  Well, it turns out that many people violently disagree with Helprin, so the book-length treatment is largely an exercise in refuting a bunch of very lazy criticisms of Helprin’s argument.

If you’ve read the shorter version of the argument, there is not much new here—just a lot more of Helprin’s great prose.  (Though, truth be told, his prose here isn’t as good as it is elsewhere.)   

After reading the book, I think it would be interesting to sit down over coffee to talk with Helprin about his argument.  (Also after reading this book, I found out that such a conversation will never happen not only because Helprin really has no reason to ever sit down to talk to me, but because he describes in the book how he really hates sitting down to talk to anyone who is not a close friend.)  I would be interested in sounding him out on an assortment of things about his argument—while I agree with his main point, I am not sure that the details are all right.  It’s worth discussing.  For example:

1) Why shouldn’t the same extension of the length of copyright apply to all patents?  The thrust of his argument would suggest patent length should also be expanded, but I am not sure if Helprin would agree with that.  Extending patents is a tricky thing—there is some real economic benefit from limiting the length of patents.  Do those benefits matter?  And if so, how much?
2) Would it bother Helprin if someone bought the rights to a work simply to destroy it?  If, for example, someone who really hated Helprin’s argument were to buy the copyright to Winter’s Tale, and then the new owner prohibited any further publication of the work, that would be a great loss to society.  Is that a problem?
3) As books move into the digital world, how much should a society spend preventing files from being copied?  Over time, it is possible that preventing copying could become quite costly.  Whose responsibility is it to stop such piracy?
4) Similar to item 3), how large should copyright infringement play in international relations?  If a country, say China, were to decide to ignore copyright law, what should be done?  This question is really just getting at how important copyright is in the grand scheme of things.
5) What does Helprin think about the Fair Use doctrine?  Should I be able to freely copy any work for distribution of the work to a class I am teaching, or should students be required to pay a copyright fee to read an article or book chapter I assign in class?

The fact that Helprin’s book makes me wonder about things like those items is a real testament to the book.  It’s an interesting topic.  In fact, I had a thesis student a few years back write about copyright law—she was against it.  (Much to her (mild) annoyance, I was never convinced.)  In fact, I’d love to see Michelle and Mark Helprin talk about the issue—Michelle is vastly more thoughtful than the type of critics Helprin dissects in this book—but, I’ll never see that conversation either.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Sun is over the Yardarm (I wish)

1.  I have not died.  It just feels like it.  The start of the school year has been brutally busy.

2. In fact, the only reason I have time to write a blog post right now is because one of my students (thanks Caroline!) just sent me a link to a truly amazing bit of artwork.  You can view it here.  Ignore all the stuff below the picture—just gaze at the picture in awe.

3. And I’ll add a very quick book review so the blog post feels complete.  Bernard DeVoto’s The Hour: A Cocktail Manifesto is a classic.  A book that should be read yearly.  This is the sort of book that reminds one of what it means to be Civilized. 

Two observations:
1.  DeVoto extols Bourbon rather than Scotch.  That was quite liberating.  I too find Bourbon to be a better drink, but I always had this nagging sense that I was missing something.  But now, my Scotch trial is over.  American Bourbon is the superior drink.

2. DeVoto condemns the olive in a martini.  And he is scathing about the Dirty Martini.  I have no idea how a man wise enough to write The Hour could be so utterly wrong about the Dirty Martini.

And now back to my busy work.