Category Archives: criticism

Books that offer criticism, literary or otherwise.

Review 167: A People’s History of the United States

A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn

History is, in its way, a fiction.

While it is made up of facts, things that are verifiable or at least reliably accepted as being what really happened, our understanding of history rests on a certain assumption that doesn’t always hold up – that what we are reading or hearing is The Truth. It’s how we learn about history when we’re kids – that this happened and that happened, and that’s all we really need to know.

The problem, however, is that what we got in our history books wasn’t the entire story. Oh, it was true, for a given value of “true,” but the historian who wrote the book did so with a specific narrative in mind, one that fit his or her perception of the past and which – more importantly – would sell textbooks to hundreds of schools across the country. The history that we get from those books is designed to appeal to the sensibilities of a populace that is already inclined to think well of its nation, and rarely deviates from the theme. While they do try to note the excesses, injustices and impropriety of the past, they tend to bury it in the glorious achievements of governments and industry.

AMURRICUH!!

Unfortunately, doing so means that there’s a lot of history that gets left on the cutting room floor. Incidents, people, whole populations get brushed aside because either there’s not enough room for them or because telling their story in detail ruins the mood that the historian is trying to set – usually one of bright optimism for a good and just nation.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this approach, either. An historian cannot practically include all of the historical viewpoints, good and bad, into a book meant to be used for only 180 days out of the year. So out of expedience, if not a conscious desire to tell an uplifting tale, they write books that look upon our past as favorably as possible, while including just enough criticism of our failures to fend off any serious accusations of bias.

As Zinn tells us, though, there’s no such thing as an historian without bias. Every historian has a story to tell, and Zinn has decided that he doesn’t want to tell the one we’re all used to hearing.

He starts in much the same place as most American history books – with the coming of Christopher Columbus to the New World. Immediately he reminds us that Columbus’ mission was not one of exploration but of commerce, and that the first question he asked the natives of what he would label Hispanola was, “Where is your gold?”

It all went downhill from there.

Reading this book, it would be very easy to get depressed. I can see how those who were brought up with a healthy dose of American Exceptionalism (the idea that the United States obeys different rules from the rest of the world and, more importantly, cannot do wrong) would really dislike this book. It is page after page of lies, misdeeds, cruelty, greed and deception. It is the story of a nation built not on the principle that all men are created equal, but that all men must be leashed to the yoke of the capitalist overclass. It’s a tale of genocide and oppression, of revolts both peaceful and violent, and it never lets up for a moment.

To his credit, Zinn tells us right up front that he’s going to take the side of the oppressed, the dispossessed and the put-down, and there’s no way you can tell that story without it being really depressing. It’s pretty clear pretty quickly, though, where his sympathies lie:

My viewpoint, in telling the history of the United States, is different: that we must not accept the memory of states as our own. Nations are not communities and never have been. The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, most often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex. And in such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the side of the executioners.

Hey, even executioners got problems, buddy...

His portrayal of the underclass, rebellious or not, is one of suffering nobility, and the System as a deliberately malevolent entity. Any good that it does is simply whatever was necessary to maintain its power, and the above quote speaks to that. The parallel structure that he uses effectively groups all of the upper class into the “persecutor” role, and the lower class into the “victims.” And while there is some truth to that – human history, after all, is a long story of rich and powerful elites governing poor and powerless people – it is painting with too broad a brush, in my opinion. He seems to work from the premise that all those with power are bad, and so those without must therefore be good.

As much as I wish that admitting bias was an excuse for it, it isn’t. It does a disservice to all involved to flatten your view of the American class system into a two-dimensional shadow play. Not all of the populist agitators were good and noble people, nor were all politicians cunning manipulators. Just keep that in mind as you read.

It’s a sobering read, though, to say the least. The best simile I could come up with is that it’s like watching your parents have sex. It’s something that you always suspected went on, but you could have gone your whole life without being presented with the reality of it. So it is no surprise that, after reading this book, some people become absolutely insufferable, cynical and disillusioned.

If you’ve already gone through that stage of your political thinking, however, you find something else in this book – hope. It’s something you have to dig for, but it is there, buried in the larger narrative that Zinn is telling us.

Not sure he saw this coming...

Given the amount of detail he goes into, it’s very easy to lose sight of the larger picture at work. Zinn details slave rebellions, gives stories of workers pushed to the extremes of human existence, soldiers thrown away for nothing, and entire segments of the population ignored or actively persecuted. But alongside these horror stories come tales of resistance. Whether it’s the quiet contemplation by a poor white farmer over whether he might have more in common with his black neighbors than his white landlords, riots of prisoners and guards against a corrupt prison system, or the militant, city-wide shutdowns organized by the Wobblies, the people can only be pushed so far. And while the Powers That Be are very good at figuring out how to distract, scare or defy the people, they eventually do make changes for the better, and everyone benefits a little bit.

Inasmuch as this book is a chronicle of America’s misdeeds over the last few centuries, it is also a tale of Americans’ triumphs. It is a tribute to the will of the people who, no matter how difficult it may have been, decided to stand up and demand respect from the men who held the reins of power. It is a testament to the women who wanted equality, the socialists who wanted a better world, the workers who wanted safe jobs at living wages, the blacks who wanted to be full citizens, and the Indians who wanted the wrongs of the past redressed.

Not everybody has gotten what they wanted – America is still very much a work in progress, and there is bound to be some backsliding as we go. What Zinn shows in this book is that no matter how bad the American government can be or how greedy American business might become, the American people want what’s best for themselves and, when the time comes, will stand up and shout for it. Given enough time, and enough courage, The United States will continue to be a better and better nation, and perhaps someday – someday – it will finally fulfill our expectations for it.

——————————————-
“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will….”
– Frederick Douglass, 1857
——————————————-

1 Comment

Filed under american history, criticism, culture, history, Howard Zinn, nonfiction, revolution, society, The United States

Lost in the Stacks 8: Guilty Pleasures

Everybody has a guilty pleasure book. It might be one author or a specific series or even a whole genre – that book you don’t want to be seen reading. The book you know your high school English teacher would scold you for wasting your time with. The book you feel stupid talking about at parties because you know they’re going to say, “Really? That’s an interesting choice. I enjoy reading James Joyce in my free time and have first editions of the collected works of Gabriel Garcia-Marquez in every room of my home,” after which they all laugh at you until you run out of the party in shame and swear never to read another word of anything fun as long as you live. For example.

You didn't know about Twain's little-known short story, "A Connecticut Yankee in a 30th Century Court?" It's fascinating, really....

But should it really be that way? Why do we let the bestseller lists and “Best Books of ALL TIME” lists or some knucklehead with a podcast tell us what we should read and what we should like? In this edition of Lost in the Stacks, we explore the idea of Guilty Pleasure Reading and whether or not the concept should even exist. Share your guilty pleasures with us and stand up for your tastes in reading!

Obama’s Book Club
NPR’s Top 100 Science Fiction and Fantasy
The Guardian’s Best Books
Time Magazine’s Top 100 Novels
The Telegraph: Top 100 Books
New York Times Bestseller List
The Comics Code Authority on Wikipedia

1 Comment

Filed under classics, comic books, criticism, culture, fantasy, fiction, Lost in the Stacks, reading, reviewing, science fiction, society

Lost in the Stacks 5: Art versus Artist

Scott Adams says some really dickish things, but the Pointy-Haired Boss is still funny to laugh at.

Mel Gibson shows his anti-Semitic side, but Lethal Weapon is still one of the best buddy cop movies of all time.

Dave Sim writes a compelling political drama in his comic book series Cerebus, but then shows himself to be a homophobic misogynist of the highest order.

Once you’ve learned something about your favorite writer or artist, it may poison your view of the art you used to love. How can you reconcile these feelings and still be able to look at yourself in the mirror? The answer [1] is in this month’s edition of Lost in the Stacks: Art versus the Artist! We look at whether art can be considered separately from the person who made it, and what it means to deal with a moral problem that has plagued us since art began. Take a listen and join in the conversation in the comments!

————————————-

[1] Disclaimer: answer may not actually be an “answer”

Leave a comment

Filed under art, criticism, ethics, fans, fiction, Lost in the Stacks, morality, reading

Lost in the Stacks 4: Writers and Readers

With the debut of HBO’s “A Game of Thrones” miniseries and a new article in The New Yorker, the strange story of George R. R. Martin and his fans has been on my mind. So, in this episode of Lost in the Stacks, we examine the weird, often dangerously codependent relationship between the Writer and the Readers.

What does the writer owe to his or her readers, if anything? What can the readers honestly expect of their writer? What promises, implicit or explicit, have been made, and what happens when they’re broken?

Join me for an interesting conversation, and let me know what you think!

George R. R. Martin’s homepage
Finish the Book, George
Is Winter Coming?

2 Comments

Filed under analysis, criticism, ethics, fans, fiction, George R. R. Martin, Lost in the Stacks, morality, reading, writing

Review 52: Maps and Legends


Maps and Legends by Michael Chabon

In this book, Michael Chabon has done something very interesting – he has uplifted me and humbled me at the same time. It’s a weird feeling, that combination, probably because I’m reviewing a book about literary criticism and the telling of stories, which put me in a kind of meta-reviewer mindset. Reading this book not only forced me to think about myself as a reader, but as a reviewer of and writer about books.

Let’s do the first part and then I’ll get to the second.

The beginning and ending of this collection of essays focuses on something very important regard the telling of stories: the idea that reading is entertainment. Reading a book or a short story, Chabon maintains, should be, first and foremost, fun. It should be a good way to rest your mind and give it a break from the rigors and stresses of daily life. Movies, music, juggling – those are all labeled entertainment and are generally accepted as being fun, so why not books?

With me as a reader, Chabon was certainly preaching to the choir. I’ve always regarded reading as fun, and if I have time to spend with a book, then it’s time well spent. But even I, the reader looking for a good time, have fallen prey to the idea that reading a book should Mean Something. I mean, look back on these reviews for a moment. How many times have I dug deep to find some kind of moral or philosophical “lesson” in a book that was probably written with nothing more in mind than to pass a few pleasant hours on an airplane? Far too often, and more often than not it was born of a desire to make the review a little longer than, “I liked this book and you will too.”

Many readers have this secret shame that we’re reading for fun. This drives us to pick up books that we wouldn’t normally read – and in my case here I’m thinking about pretty much anything written by a Russian in the 19th and 20th centuries – in order to pick up some kind of intellectual cachet. We wander around the bookstore, dawdling before the “literature” section in the hopes that someone will see us there instead of in the science fiction/fantasy ghetto, which is where we really want to be. Chabon suggests that it is this ghettoization of books that contributes to such book snobbery and, if he had his way, he would see it gone. Every bookshop would be one section – Books.

The title of his book, Maps and Legends evokes this feeling. Maps, you see, serve two purposes. They chronicle where you have already been, showing you the roads you took and the things you saw. But, and possibly more importantly, they show you where you haven’t been yet. Who among you has never sat down and looked at a map and thought, I wonder what’s there? Even a map of the town in which you live can be oddly alluring. I lived in Kyoto for nearly nine years, and yet I could still look at a map and wonder where I should go next.

Books, Chabon maintains, should have the same quality. When I go into a modern bookstore, I head straight for the ports I know. I don’t explore distant shores or unknown islands. I’m provincial, a homebody of the literary sort. Perhaps if there were a store where the map was different, the layout unfamiliar, I might discover new worlds that would have otherwise gone unnoticed.

So this is where the uplift comes – Chabon inspires me to be a better reader. To not only read more, but to read better. To not gloss over the details in order to enjoy the book, but to actively search for them. To stare at some part of a story and wonder, What is that? Have I been there before?

Where he humbles me is simply in his writing. For the purposes of this book, he and I are in the same field – talking about books and writing and how they affect us. And Chabon is much, much better at it than I am. His writing is a pleasure to read – not in that frenetic, sensory overload Tom Wolfe kind of way, but more in the same way one would enjoy a really good meal. You want to pause and roll the words around in your head for a moment before you move on. He digresses and wanders and then comes back again, just when you were wondering where he was going with all this.

In the essays to be found in this book, he looks at the immortal allure of Sherlock Holmes, the bleak horror of The Road, and the unfortunate lack of anything worthwhile for children to read. He talks of golems and death and imaginary homelands for speakers of dying languages, and makes it all compelling and enthralling. I want to write like Chabon when I grow up.

If there’s higher praise, I don’t know it.

————————————————–
“The brain is an organ of entertainment, sensitive at any depth, and over a wide spectrum. But we have learned to mistrust and despise our human aptitude for being entertained, and in that sense we get the entertainment we deserve.”
– Michael Chabon, Maps and Legends
————————————————–

Michael Chabon on Wikipedia
Maps and Legends on Wikipedia
Maps and Legends at Amazon.com

1 Comment

Filed under criticism, Michael Chabon, reading, reviewing, writing

Review 13: Misquoting Jesus


Misquoting Jesus by Bart D. Ehrman

I saw this guy on The Daily Show a few years ago, and his book sounded like a really interesting idea – study the ways in which, over the last two thousand years, the text of the Bible has been altered. Sometimes it has been altered by mistake and sometimes on purpose, but it has been altered nonetheless.

Now this is a claim that angers a certain section of Christianity – often known as the Biblical Literalists – who believe that every word of the Bible is true, the revealed Word of God. Unfortunately for them, once the text is analyzed, once source texts and translations are looked at carefully, there are too many discrepancies for that to be true.

What makes this book interesting is the author’s background, which he explains in detail in the introduction. Bart Ehrman is not an angry atheist, looking to tear down the New Testament. Quite the contrary – in his teens, Ehrman became Born Again, filling the void in his life with 100% Jesus. He threw his heart and soul into Bible study, convinced that the book was the inerrant, incontrovertible Word Of God. It was only when he began really studying the Bible that he started to get the feeling that something wasn’t quite right.

And when I say “studying the Bible,” I don’t mean just reading a few passages before he went to bed at night. Ehrman is the kind of person who learned Latin and ancient Greek and Aramaic so that he could read the oldest known manuscripts for the Gospels and the Epistles. He immersed himself in Biblical history, arming himself with every tool he would need for textual criticism and a better understanding of the text that meant so much to him.

An explanation of textual criticism takes up a great deal of the book, since it’s a branch of academia that most people aren’t all that familiar with. Textual criticism is the analyses of ancient manuscripts in an attempt to determine what the original text was. This is done by comparing manuscripts. It attempts to determine what changes were made and when. It’s very difficult, even worse so the older the work is, but it’s a task that has absorbed Biblical scholars for centuries. This brings up two questions: why is that difficult to do, and why is it important?

As to the first, it’s difficult because these manuscripts were, before the printing press got into full swing, copied by hand. By humans, to be specific and if you’re a human – and there’s a very good chance that you are – you know how hard it is for us to do things without making errors. A pen might slip, your eye might skip a line, or you just might be tired and misread a word. That error then gets around, and someone else copies it, probably adding their own errors as well. Many of the original copyists of the New Testament weren’t professional scribes, and even some of the pros were barely capable of actually reading the text they were copying.

What’s worse, there’s no guarantee that the “correct” text is the one that gets the most exposure. You might have fifty copies of, say, the Gospel of Luke that say one thing and five that say something else, but those fifty copies might all be wrong. It’s kind of counter-intuitive, but there you go. And age isn’t always reliable either. You might think that an 8th century text is more “correct” than one from the 10th century, but not if that 10th century text had been copied from a 4th century manuscript. You can see how problems emerge.

Ehrman lays out, as simply as he can, the criteria by which textual critics judge a manuscript. It can’t be called scientific, as there are a lot of judgment calls to be made, but within the field there are a lot of very good guidelines, and the peer review process is relentless.

The bigger question, then – why is it important? Well, the biggest reason is because there are over a billion people on the planet who live their lives, to one degree or another, by the words of the New Testament. They look at the Gospels and see the stories of Jesus and his miracles, they read the letters of John and his instructions to the newly-birthed churches of the first century to try and find out what Jesus would have wanted. And because Jesus himself never left us any notes, the words in the New Testament are all they have to go on. Isn’t it vital, therefore, to know what the writers originally wrote? If you’re basing your faith off of inaccurate writings, does that mean your faith is flawed? If you’re living your life based on ideas that were not inspired by Jesus, but by a third-century scribe who, for example, had certain ideas about a woman’s place in the church, does that mean you’re living wrong?

And if you are one of those who believe that God transmitted His words to the writers of the New Testament, what does the fact that we no longer have those original words mean to your faith?

That’s the big thing here – we don’t have Paul’s original letters to the early churches. We don’t have the notes that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John used when they were writing their Gospels. We don’t even have copies of copies of those notes. What we do have, and what Ehrman demonstrates in detail, are many manuscripts over many centuries that have thousands of points of divergence. Sometimes those differences are minor, but some of them affect the very foundations upon which Christianity is built.

Like the famous story of the adulteress, where Jesus gave his “Let he who is without sin” speech. It doesn’t show up in the earliest and best texts, but gets wedged in a few centuries later. Or the bit in Luke where Jesus sweats blood? That, too, appears to have been a later addition to an otherwise well-constructed section of that Gospel. Even the famous King James Bible is not immune – it was based off a Greek New Testament that was written earlier, parts of which were constructed by a man named Erasmus, who did it not by using original Greek writings, but by translating later Latin translations back into Greek. Why? Because those original Greek writings were lost, but they had to have something….

Ehrman tries to look at the possible motivations for these changes, and they are necessarily speculative. The early Church was a turbulent and unstable entity, with many different groups pushing their rendition of who Jesus was and what he wanted of his followers.

Was Jesus an emotionally turbulent rabblerouser or was he a calm and serene figure of peace? Was he the begotten son of God or just adopted? Did he die with quiet dignity, willingly surrendering his spirit up to God, or did he die in torment, forsaken? Was he entirely human, entirely divine, both or neither? Christians of the early Church knew these to be vital questions – with a variety of answers. The New Testament we have today is the result of who had the most power to enforce their interpretations of Jesus’ life, times and teachings.

This book covers a whole lot of ground in 218 pages – Biblical history, Christian history, textual criticism, politics, sociology…. The history of how the New Testament came to be the way it is today is a complicated and fascinating one, and Ehrman casts it in an interesting light.

You see, rather than spend 200 pages noting the history of alterations in the book, he doesn’t say, “And that’s why we should just throw it the hell out!” Rather, he encourages readers to look at the New Testament as an ornate human creation, a text (or, more accurately, a collection of texts) that has survived the millennia by being complex enough to survive interpretation after interpretation. The inerrant Word Of God? Sorry, but no. But it is still key to understanding human history in the last two thousand years, and is therefore worthy of study.

—————————————–
“What if God didn’t say it? What if the book you take as giving you God’s words instead contains human words? What if the Bible doesn’t give a foolproof answer to the questions of the modern age – abortion, women’s rights, gay rights, religious supremacy, Western-style democracy and the like? What if we have to figure out how to live and what to believe on our own, without setting up the Bible as a false idol – or an oracle that gives us a direct line of communication with the Almighty?”
– Brad Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus
———————————————

Misquoting Jesus at Wikipedia
Bart Ehrman at Wikipedia
Bart Ehrman’s homepage
Textual criticism at Wikipedia

1 Comment

Filed under Bart Ehrman, Bible, Christianity, criticism, history, Jesus, nonfiction, religion, textual criticism, theology