Heh. I was just idly thinking today about how much I hate the cliché of titling a book or article “Why [subject here] matter[s]”, when the news comes out that Newt Gingrich is releasing a book titled A Nation Like No Other: Why American Exceptionalism Matters.

Based on the book’s description, it sounds like he’s making the old argument that “American Exceptionalism” derives from the American hostility to government. Maybe so. But, as I wrote in response to similar remarks by Jonah Goldberg:

 “Americans are more instinctively hostile to government than most. Yet, this is not always the case. After all, didn’t most people readily believe the government’s worst-case claims about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?”

My point is that the people who speak of “American Exceptionalism” and “small government” do not always behave accordingly–specifically, when Republicans are in power, they are willing to tolerate–even embrace–expansions of government power.

Via Hacker News, an interesting article by Linda Holmes, pointing out that there isn’t enough time in the world to see all the works of literature and art:

“After all, you can eliminate a lot of discernment you’d otherwise have to apply to your choices of books if you say, ‘All genre fiction is trash.’ You have just massively reduced your effective surrender load, because you’ve thrown out so much at once.

The same goes for throwing out foreign films, documentaries, classical music, fantasy novels, soap operas, humor, or westerns. I see people culling by category, broadly and aggressively: television is not important, popular fiction is not important, blockbuster movies are not important. Don’t talk about rap; it’s not important. Don’t talk about anyone famous; it isn’t important. And by the way, don’t tell me it is important, because that would mean I’m ignoring something important, and that’s … uncomfortable. That’s surrender.” [Italics hers.]

I understand this. For example, I listen to almost no currently popular music and I watch very little television. I also see few new movies, preferring to watch classic old movies instead.

This is not because I assume all the new things to be worthless, however. I go by the rule of thumb that much of the currently popular stuff is awful, some of it is mildly enjoyable, and a very small portion of it is destined for immortality as great Art.* It seems probable, at any rate. Besides, I’m not absolutist about not seeing or hearing anything new. It’s a general policy, not an iron law.

But why do I choose to spend less time on “current” art and more time on older stuff, and not the other way round? The reason is that I believe it sort of helps you be less susceptible to fads in general. It’s similar to the phenomenon Paul Graham wrote about in his essay “Taste for Makers”:

“Aiming at timelessness is also a way to evade the grip of fashion. Fashions almost by definition change with time, so if you can make something that will still look good far into the future, then its appeal must derive more from merit and less from fashion.

Strangely enough, if you want to make something that will appeal to future generations, one way to do it is to try to appeal to past generations. It’s hard to guess what the future will be like, but we can be sure it will be like the past in caring nothing for present fashions.”

Obviously, the major (but not only) exception to my avoidance of current art is the video game thing. Part of it is simply that I like games and that’s that, but another part of it is that most people don’t think of them as “Art” yet, and I’m hoping to be slightly ahead of the pack on this.

Having said that, I can think of lots of reasons one might choose to ignore old Art and focus on the new. There are pros and cons to both.

*This is why I’m sensitive about people condemning video games as unintelligent, immature, juvenile entertainment. It is true that most video games are just that, but not all of them. Some are truly brilliant, and I don’t like to see them condemned.

Ta-Nehisi Coates makes a great point:

“[M]y readings of Jane Austen, and now Edith Wharton, have really taken me back to this old claim… that women aren’t funny. As an adult, probably the first author I found to be truly humorous was Zora Neale Hurston. Better people then me can probably cite a range of other women authors who used humor in their writing, but even in my own small forays it’s clear to me that they are there. Leaving aside the desire to say something provocative, if thin, I’m thinking that a large portion of this claim originates in shrinking the range of ‘funny.’…

Also part of this is on us, by which I mean people who love books. I don’t think many people today think of fiction, creative nonfiction or poetry as particularly funny genres.” 

Read the whole thing.

He’s right. (About the literature thing. Well, I think he’s also right about the “women can be funny” thing, but I want to focus on this.)

People tend not to realize how much humor there really is in literature. One of the things that impressed me when I recently read the book Jane Eyre is how much wit there was in it. There are no “jokes” as such, but there is a great deal of humorous dialogue. Even the works of Thomas Hardy, which are almost always very dark in subject matter, contain many humorously ironic moments and witty use of language.

So, I might as well admit it: I didn’t blog yesterday because I was determined to finally finish reading the book Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, which I started way back in February. It’s a great book, and I had to see how it ended. I was quite surprised by how happily it all turned out, but this was probably because the style and time-period of the book had subconsciously reminded me of a Thomas Hardy novel, and things rarely end well in Thomas Hardy novels.

Anyway, it’s an excellent book, even if it does drag a bit in the “third act”, if you will. I plan to re-read it very soon to see what subtleties I pick up on, but I’ll read it at a more leisurely pace this time around.

On the advice in this post of thingy, I’ve been reading the book Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. I think it’s a very good book, but in the early going, there’s a character named “John Reed” whom I find astoundingly irritating. Obviously, the character is intended to be this way, but I feel that he is rather too well-written in this regard, and becomes so unpleasant as to impair the reader’s (well, this reader’s) enjoyment of the book.

I’d never thought about it much before, but it’s a delicate balance in fiction to write unlikable characters. You don’t want them to be too sympathetic, obviously; or it screws up the audience’s reaction to them. But if you succeed too well at making them unlikable, people might say “I deal with enough jerks in life as it is”, and give up on the book altogether.

Not that I’d do that with Jane Eyre. It’s quite good.