Chad Comello

Librarian, cinephile, et al

Category: Review (page 2 of 12)

‘Uncommon Type’ by Tom Hanks – a typecast review

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It's fitting that my very first typecast is a review of "Uncommon Type: Some Stories", a book of short stories by Tom Hanks (out October 2017), written on my Olympia SM7 of a similar color. I don't read many short story collections, but when I heard the unofficial Dean of Typewriter Enthusiasts was writing a book inspired by typewriters, how could I not read it? Little did I know that a librarian colleague (h/t Megan) would snag an advance copy at a library conference for me, allowing me an early look. And whaddaya know: I liked it! But I *would* say that, right? "Of course the typewriter and Tom Hanks fan would like it!" Since I knew I was biased, I tried to read the book as if I'd picked it up at random without knowing its very famous author. And I liked it even then, though there are clues throughout that point to Hanks being the author. There are stories about World War II, the Apollo missions, and the life of a famous actor during a whirlwind press junket, no doubt influenced by Hanks' well-known interests and career. The bulk of the writing, though, is characteristic of simply a good writer, famous or otherwise. The highlight might be "Christmas Eve 1953", which alternates between a sweetly rendered scene of a World War II vet at home with his family and his vivid flashbacks to the Battle of the Bulge. I also really enjoyed "The Past is Important to Us", set in the near-future when time travel is possible but only to a specific time and place for 22 hours at a time. This brings a billionaire to the 1939 New York World's Fair repeatedly to track down an enchanting mystery woman. Has the makings of a great short film. Several stories feature the same friend group but with a different focus in each: "Three Exhausting Weeks" follows a listless man who gets more than he bargained for when he starts dating his type-A friend; "Alan Bean Plus Four" (so-named for the fourth person to walk on the moon) sends the gang on a fantastical, slapdash trip around the Moon; and "Steve Wong is Perfect" has them cheering on a reluctant bowling prodigy. Each story leads off with a picture of the typewriter mentioned in the story, be it a Hammond Type-o-Matic, Groma Kolibri, or Selectric. Most of them are used or mentioned only in passing (for a story dedicated exclusively to typewriters, typeheads can skip to the delightful "These Are the Meditations of My Heart", which includes a paean to the Hermes 2000), so people who didn't come to the book for the typewriters (perish the thought!) will still enjoy a fairly diverse assemblage of stories and characters. Perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that Hanks exhibits in his writing an actor's keen sense of relationships and scenic flow. It *was* surprising that this wasn't the case for dialogue, which is often over-written. But I ain't mad. I'd recommend this not only as a typewriter fan but as a librarian, to readers in search of small-dose stories that trigger a smile as often as a twinge of longing. May this book recruit ever more people into the glorious Typewriter Revolution!uncommon-type2uncommon-type3uncommon-type4uncommon-type5uncommon-type6

See more typewriter-related posts here

The Vanishing American Adult

51gFJx7Js5L._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgI can’t believe it. I think I may have just found a Republican U.S. senator I’d actually vote for.

I’m as surprised as anyone that I read, let alone greatly enjoyed, Ben Sasse’s The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis—and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance by Ben Sasse, Republican (but, phew, #NeverTrump) senator from Nebraska. I really think the only reason I picked it up was because Sasse’s face isn’t on the cover. If it were, it would look like every other politician’s memoir and therefore a waste of time.

But this isn’t that, not by a long shot. Sasse, a Ph.D in history and former college president, was troubled by the lack of certain skills and self-sufficiency in his college’s incoming freshman classes. He doesn’t use the term, but it’s those darn Millennials he’s talking about. Though the book does give off the slightest aroma of Kids These Days and Back In My Day, I’m inclined to endure it because Sasse is largely right.

Part I examines education, which Sasse sees as the root of the current coming-of-age crisis. He’s not a fan of John Dewey, who crusaded to make schooling the central influence on children, rather than make it something that was supplemental to the education children should receive at home. (No surprise that the Sasses homeschool their kids.) But he’s right about the self-perpetuating nature of bureaucracy and how it runs counter to good education:

Unfortunately, centralized education and bureaucrats tend to see every failure as a product of still not enough centralized bureaucracy. Most of these experts are blind to the possibility that perhaps we are still trying to spoon-feed young adults who we should instead nudge to travel and to read, to work and to become the kind of students to ask questions before being handed a three-point formulaic answer.

One man’s boilerplate Republican talking point is another’s sensible conservative approach to an evident problem.

Beyond the school walls, Sasse sees a conglomeration of factors that have led to the current coming of age crisis: too much medication, screen time, video games, and porn; living with parents too long and getting married later; too much helicopter parenting and intellectual sheltering and not enough religion. One can debate each of these to death, but taken together it’s a potent cocktail for Peter Panism.

Part II gets into the practicalities of cultivating self-discipline and good character and how they can foster a healthy transition to adulthood: avoid age segregation, work hard, consume less, travel, and read a lot. Basic stuff, right? Sasse dives into each of them. As a librarian I was especially tickled by the chapter on reading: Sasse has developed his own “essential reading” library that is impressive in its scope and depth, and even inspired me to pick up The Iliad in my ongoing quest to fill in the gaps of my public education.

I don’t foresee any more books by politicians on my reading horizon, so I’m glad I lucked out with this one.

Some Quotes

Production > consumption:

Consumption is not the key to happiness; production is. Meaningful work—that actually serves and benefits a neighbor, thereby making a real difference in the world—contributes to long-term happiness and well-being. Consumption just consumes.

Self-sufficiency > permanent dependency:

Allowing our culture to devolve from one that encourages self-sufficiency into one that indulges permanent dependency is to tolerate a disengagement of the soul akin to permanent training wheels. Letting the next generation believe someone else will solve their problems imperils not only them but our whole society.

Aging > perpetual adolescence:

We latch onto evidence hinting that aging can be put off, perhaps indefinitely. It’s no surprise then that our young today inherit a fear of growing up and growing old, and a near allergy to confronting honestly the only certainty in life besides taxes. …

Denying meaningful rites of passage and obscuring the distinction between childhood and adulthood cheats the generation coming of age of something vital. Lowering expectations, cushioning all blows, and tolerating aimlessness not only hurts them, it also deprives their neighbors, who desperately need their engagement.

Wonder Woman

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I recently began reading The Iliad for the first time. Having that in mind when I saw Wonder Woman was helpful in my appreciation of both works. The way Ares interacts with humanity in Patty Jenkins’s excellent film—first subtly, then catastrophically—mirrors that of the gods of The Iliad, who bounce in and out of the affairs of men, sometimes at whim and sometimes with purpose.

The other lens through which I tried to watch Wonder Woman was as through the eyes of women. In this way several images from the movie stuck with me. Steve, the drowning dude in distress, seeing Diana standing atop his wrecked plane before she rescues him. Diana’s glasses, thrust upon her in a winking attempt to de-glamorize her in Edwardian London, quickly and symbolically crushed during a back alley brawl. Steve’s commanding officer, despite being handed the intelligence coup of Dr. Poison’s stolen notebook, caring much more about—God forbid—a woman in the war room.

Not to mention the now iconic No Man’s Land sequence, which I later learned brought many women to tears. What I found powerful about it, beyond the single-minded drive and badassery Diana shows in battle, was how it was the culmination of a day’s worth of her being told No over and over again, and choosing to ignore it each time. No, you can’t dress like that. No, you can’t go to the front. No, you can’t brandish your sword. No, you can’t enter this men’s-only room, or that other men’s-only room. No, you can’t stop to help people on the way to the front. No, you can’t go into No Man’s Land.

And most of this was from her ally Steve! Nevertheless, she persisted. When she finally deployed her powers in full force, all that naysaying seemed silly in retrospect. Of course she was the right person for the job. She was no man, and the better for it.

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On top of her combat prowess, she later on develops keen insights about humanity, in spite of (or maybe because of) her outsider status. Her battle with Ares triggers a revelation that speaks to the depth of her inner character: that men are capable of great evil does not disqualify them from her protection; in fact, it seems to make her more resolved to provide it. “It’s not about deserve,” she tells Ares. “It’s about what you believe. And I believe in love.” It’s an extraordinary thing for a superhero to say, especially within the bleak Zach Synder DC Universe.

(Her compassionate spirit, her dedication to doing the right thing, and compulsion to tackle challenges head-on reminded me of Chris Evans’ Captain America. Both are alienated from their times—one due to cryogenic preservation and the other by her magical hidden island—and also are the rare superheroes to cry on film. It’s a shame we won’t see those two characters fight together anytime soon, but I’d be all for it.)

That it was a female superhero who brought love into the superhero’s creedal calculus will no doubt rankle those who wish for Diana to upend the sexist assumptions of what a female should believe. (She still upends plenty.) But I didn’t see it as the hokey platitude it is on the surface. I see it as an acknowledgement of love’s deep meaning and the impact it makes upon us. However short her time was with Steve, it made an indelible impression on her and subsequently her worldview as a superhero. Pairing this experience with her incessant drive to do something when faced with injustice makes her a potent force for good in man’s fallen world, and in the larger world of superhero movies.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

guardians-of-the-galaxy-vol-2-poster-header-700x300.jpgJosh Larsen posted my response to his middling-to-negative review of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 in his Why I’m Wrong feature. I wanted to post it here as well, along with follow-up thoughts about how the movie reminded me of his great new book Movies Are Prayers.

My defense of GOTG2

What I won’t defend: the glorified carnage, yet another “blow up the glowing thing in order to save the universe” superhero movie ending, or the strange casting of Sylvester Stallone.

What I will defend: Chris Pratt’s ongoing ability to surprise with his acting; how they maintained a healthy mix of irreverent humor, action, and obligatory MCU service; and how these maladjusted Guardian misfits learn to love each other and themselves in a surprisingly uncheesy way. The subplots of Nebula, Yondu, and Mantis hardly drag the focus away from the Guardians. On the contrary, they enhance each of them by calling attention to the compelling parts (or defects) in the Guardians’ personalities, and propelling them toward the reconciliation and peace (however temporary) they crave. The Yondu and Nebula storylines were especially affecting, both on their own and how they affected Quill and Gamora respectively.

How can the antagonism between Quill and Rocket be “forced” given their very believable insecurities and irrepressible need to be the wittiest, most tough-guy fighter of the group? And did you fall asleep during the scenes between Rocket and Baby Groot? They contained the same delightful rapport from the first film, altered for the new, infantilized version of Groot. You must have missed those and the other “grace notes” that peppered the entire film, including the best Zune joke of all time.

No doubt the plot goes a little haywire once Kurt Russell enters the picture. (What was up with his castle and all those porcelain dioramas? Demigod hobby I guess.) It pretty quickly didn’t smell right, so I spent most of the second act waiting for The Turn. But since I’ve lowered my expectations considerably for Marvel villains, my larger concern was enjoying the laughs and unexpected poignant moments along the way.

You insist it’s a small movie trying on big-boy blockbuster pants, but I saw it as putting on one of those clear, gelled spacesuits that Quill wears at one point: the spectacle fits snugly around the human core. I’ll put up with an explosion or 17 for that.

Further thoughts on reconciliation

I wanted to follow-up about how it acts as a prayer of reconciliation. Starting in Vol. 1, each of the Guardians (sans Groot) had crippling insecurities and self-esteem issues that they masked with sarcasm (Quill), steeliness (Gamora), pugnacity (Rocket), or a vengeful spirit (Drax). Insecurities make for great cinema: they compel characters to act for or against things. And when they are paired with comedy and great cast chemistry, you get movies like this, which are fun to watch because the characters aren’t as noble and upright as the Avengers.

But insecurity also signals a hole wanting to be filled, which is where reconciliation comes in. It became clear in Vol. 1 that Quill ached for the love of a real family. He thought he had it in Vol. 2 when Ego came along, but then realized it was counterfeit and downright deadly, causing him to see his relationship with Yondu in a different and profound way. (How beautiful was that line “He may have been your father, boy, but he wasn’t your daddy”?) Yondu was able to redeem himself in the end, sacrificing his life for his son and bringing people together for his funeral. (Yes, it was saccharine; no, I don’t care.)

Gamora wasn’t looking for reconciliation, but it nevertheless came for her in a fury. Nebula’s rage, we found out, was yet another cloak to hide deep childhood trauma and pain of not having a sister to love and confide in. When we find this out after their Sister Fight to End All Sister Fights, Gamora is shocked. But later, humbled, she initiates the process of reconciliation, however uneasy, in another small but beautiful moment toward restoration.

Yondu has another great moment with Rocket, telling him who Rocket is and therefore who Yondu is by extension. Deep down, Rocket wants to be seen and accepted for who he is beneath his hardened yet furry exterior. This bit of reconciliation isn’t between Rocket and Yonda, though, but within Rocket, who struggles with the notion that you have to believe you deserve love if you’re ever going to be able to love someone else. You mentioned the chemistry between Rocket and Groot was lacking. It was certainly different, but remember: Groot technically died in the first movie. Rocket lost his best friend and guardian. Thus I assume his character in Vol. 2 is simply grieving.

For Drax, companionship has been a key desire after losing his family. He achieved some peace about it at the end of Vol. 1, but now his budding relationship with Mantis taps into that lost aspect of his life. A man who doesn’t understand emotions paired with someone who only understands them? That’s the basis of a sitcom. Drax & Mantis, coming to Netflix tomorrow.

And Groot just wants to dance, man.

It seems kinda silly to devote this much attention to a movie that would probably just laugh at any suggestion of deep thought. And you’re right that the grace the Guardians extend to each other did not extend to the hordes of henchmen killed without a second’s thought, an unfortunately typical feature of many American action movies. But I’m a sucker for moments like these in any kind of movie, let alone in one you wouldn’t expect.

Movies Are Prayers

Tangerine as an opportunity for reconciliation. Top Hat as a jump for joy. 12 Years A Slave as a song of lament. In his new book Movies Are Prayers: How Films Voice Our Deepest Longings, Josh Larsen performs what he calls “cultural refraction,” revealing how the many colors of prayer match quite comfortably with movies of all kinds. I got an early copy of the book to review, but as is the case with many of the books I review as a librarian, this was one I’d be reading no matter what.

As with movies, there are many genres of prayer, and Larsen dwells on nine of them: praise, yearning, lament, anger, confession, reconciliation, obedience, meditation, and joy. Each of these chapters could be books in themselves, given how many movies are out there and how rich and layered the concept of prayer is. But Larsen, taking a specifically Christian tack, focuses on how those types of prayer and their analogous movies speak to the creation-fall-redemption-restoration trajectory of the Bible and the Christian faith it inspires. Through this prism, the central miracle in Children of Men provokes an awe-inducing response to incarnation. The violent anger of Fight Club is a primal scream against a fallen world. And the “holy nonsense” of The Muppets shows that sometimes joy manifests itself in silly and inexplicable ways.

“I can offer lament to God, and often do,” Larsen writes. “But sometimes the movies do it for me.” How true this is, and not only for laments. When I find myself unable to articulate a feeling or grasp at a deep truth, I often reach for a movie (or album or book) to act as a kind of semiconductor, allowing that electric feeling I get from something meaningful to flow freely and charge me up.

But not only do films, like prayer, “voice our deepest longings”, they both also demand thoughtful response, Larsen writes, whether in a sanctuary or theater:

In both instances, we’ve set aside our time and our space to gather in community and join our concentration. Often the intention is simply to escape the world (and don’t forget, church serves this function too), but frequently we gather to apply our intellectual, emotional, and artistic prowess toward considering the world and our purpose within it.

I first encountered Larsen in his role as editor of Think Christian, where I’ve written a few articles over the years. From there I learned that he co-hosts Filmspotting, a weekly film podcast that now automatically goes to the top of my queue. Having been a regular Filmspotting listener for several years now, it was especially rewarding to read about films that I encountered along with him and Adam through the podcast, like the Apu trilogy and Tangerine.

Larsen puts forward one film that he believes encompasses each of the prayer modes and embodies the entire journey from creation to fall to redemption and restoration. (Read the book to find out which one.) It got me thinking about which other movies could qualify. There are probably many that fit this mold in some way, but I think Toy Story is a good one. Larsen mentions it in the chapter on prayers of confession, but I think it fits in the creation-restoration arc nicely. Not only does the film begin within Andy’s imaginative creation story, but there follows a literal fall (with style) and banishment from the toys’ Eden. (Woody/Buzz gets very Jacob/Esau for a while there.) Woody goes through a process of yearning, lament, and anger as he deals with Buzz’s incursion into his previously idyllic existence, just as Buzz endures his “not a flying toy” existential crisis. Both humbled after moments of confession, they reconcile and work together to return to their rightful place in Andy’s life.

Too often when “Christian” and “movies” come together, a didactic censoriousness and disordered view of art follow. Larsen takes the opposite approach. You’ll see no mention of Left Behind or God’s Not Dead, but you will see George Bailey struggling to be obedient in It’s a Wonderful Life and Alvin’s motorized meditations in The Straight Story and hushed yearning in In the Mood for Love. As his true in his reviews, he brings a generous, exploratory spirit to cinema, seeing the form’s good and beautiful and attempting to understand the bad and ugly. This generosity comes out in the book’s benediction:

As we watch films, then, let’s enter the theater as we would a sanctuary where a prayer is about to be offered. Let’s listen to the prayer carefully and graciously before we add our own words. Let’s be a congregation, not a censor board. Let’s be open to the possibility that as movie watchers, we’re privileged eavesdroppers on a dialogue between God and the creative beings he made.

So rare it is that ardent believers and dedicated cinephiles can bond over the same book that Movies Are Prayers should be considered a minor miracle.

Win It All

I watched The Verdict recently. Paul Newman’s lawyer character bluffs his way into a high-stakes case, but repeatedly fails on his way to the climax, when a Deus Ex Machina saves the day.

I thought about that while watching Joe Swanberg’s latest film Win It All. Getting past the minor thrill of seeing my current city of residence featured on screen so lovingly by Swanberg & Co, has any movie featuring gambling ever ended with the gambler losing? Every one I can think of ends with a dramatic “win it all” moment, no matter how improbable.

I guess in games of chance it’s always possible. But in a movie like this, where Johnson’s no-luck gambler Eddie is established to be a hapless addict lacking self-control but nevertheless fully aware of all he could lose if the worst happens, his Deus Ex Machina seems like a copout, even if it does give him the ending we all want for him.

Despite that lingering uneasiness, I liked this movie. Johnson and his supporting cast of Joe Lo Truglio, Aislinn Derbez, and Keegan-Michael Key complete another typical Swanberg joint: raw, loose, endearing, and at times emotionally harrowing. I’d rate it on par with his previous film Digging for Fire and above 2013’s Drinking Buddies.

Now that I think of it, perhaps Eddie’s sudden conclusion is simply grace.

The Family Stone

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The Rotten Tomatoes critics consensus of The Family Stone is that “This family holiday dramedy features fine performances but awkward shifts of tone.” Which, yeah. That’s why it’s so good.

I didn’t come away loving it when I saw it in the theater. Too mercurial, I thought. And that excruciating dinner scene… But upon further viewings, I’ve come to realize it’s one of the greater Christmas movies, precisely because of its mood swings. Perhaps your family was different, but “awkward shifts of tone” should be one of the definitions of family.

Not only does the film capture a particular kind of cozy, Hallmark-approved Christmastime—and one that’s distinctly New England—but it also captures what it’s like to go through any kind of Christmas with the people you love but who are also most adept at driving you crazy.

An immediate familiarity sets in as we’re dropped into this year’s Stone Family Christmas, which feels like it could be any of the many Christmases they have shared together. The family members gradually arrive at the Stone home and start chatting as if continuing an ongoing conversation. There’s hardly any backstory, no “remember last year when…” or other expository filler that can weigh down family dramas. As we meet each Stone, we can deduce at once their role in the family, though not yet what role they will play in the unfolding story.

Little things stuck out during my most recent Christmastime viewing. Like the random assemblage of characters piled into a car to go get pizzas, a reminder to me of how driving to places around the holidays with the people you don’t usually drive to places with feels a bit more special. Or Amy and Sybil pestering Everett about taking his tie off, which at once told us that was something Amy and Sybil cared enough about and that Everett was the kind of person to wear a tie at a family get-together.

Everyone starts out on a certain trajectory, but writer/director Thomas Bezucha does a great job of steering the key characters into unexpected directions. These trajectories are just as varied as the film’s tone. Sybil’s terminal breast cancer is alluded to but never exploited, and is the impetus for the brief but powerful moments of reconciliation she experiences with her adult children before the end of the movie. Amy’s prickliness, which bleeds into outright hostility at times, gives way to brief moments of vulnerability. And though the partner swap revealed in the one-year-later epilogue is borderline preposterous—Meredith’s totally cool with her sister dating her former fiancé? really?—the circumstances that led to each character’s moment of clarity were sold well.

I’ve found my opinion of The Family Stone is in the minority, but there are others out there who see what I see in it. I absolutely understand the counterpoints as well, but ultimately I don’t care whether you like it or not!

Escanaba in Da Moonlight

For dose dat don’t know much about the Superior State, dere’s a couple of tings that need to be explained. First ting is, in da U.P., we don’t explain tings. Second ting is, we got some of the best huntin’ and fishin’ in da whole world.

So says Albert Soady, patriarch of probably the most Yooper family you’ll see on film thanks to Jeff Daniels’ Escanaba in Da Moonlight. I learned about the movie from a book about midwestern accents, and since I’m from Wisconsin and have been deer hunting, I was very intrigued.

Written and directed by Jeff Daniels, a Michigan native, the movie is based on a play also written by Daniels, which focuses on the peculiarities of hunting culture and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Daniels plays Reuben, a sadsack hunter haunted by never having shot a buck. He meets up with his father and brother at a rural cabin the night before deer hunting season opens desperate to shed his “Buckless Yooper” curse. This year, however, he comes equipped with potions from his Ojibwa wife meant to attract deer to him. They apparently work, because supernatural wackiness ensues.

The strange rituals, the sing-songy local accent, and the abundant flatulence all felt familiar to me, having for years trekked to a cabin in the Northwoods for “deer camp” (and duck camp and fish camp) for some fresh piney air and a chance at cynegetic glory. The specific delights and idiosyncrasies of this experience are hard to explain to the uninitiated, but this movie does it well. Half the fun (and strangeness) happens when you’re not hunting.

The movie’s origin as a play is evident. There are stretches of tightly paced dialogue, with characters trading time in the spotlight, and a single setting where most of the action occurs. Yet despite the story taking place mostly within the cabin (which feels appropriately ramshackle and lived-in), Daniels stretches outside when needed to take advantage of the authentic Michigan wilderness around them.

Joey Albright shines as Reuben’s brother Remnar, whose Kevin James-style physicality contrasts well with Reuben’s browbeaten neuroticism. Add to this Harve Presnall’s stentorian father figure Albert and oddball supporting characters, and you’ve got a pasty-esque mix of flavors in this bizarre yet lovingly crafted indie movie that’s best watched in long underwear with a case of Leinenkugel’s.

Word by Word

“The process of creating a dictionary is magical, frustrating, brain wrenching, mundane, transcendent. It is ultimately a show of love for a language that has been called unlovely and unlovable.”

Unlovable? Bah! English may be a strange, amorphous beast, but its quirkiness is its charm. In Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, Kory Stamper, a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster, captures this charm with verve and infectious enthusiasm. She brings to life a profession that, like many old trades, has been disrupted by the internet, in good ways and bad, yet still (I believe) remains vital. The institution of Merriam-Webster, Stamper writes, “has been around longer than Ford Motors, Betty Crocker, NASCAR, and thirty-three of the fifty American states. It’s more American than football (a British invention) and apple pie (ditto).”

Then again, as one of those people who keep a word list and lights up when I stumble upon a new fancy word, I’m an easy mark for a book like this. But I’ve also tried similar books written by word or dictionary people, and none of them hooked me like this one.

Tackling a different word or phrase with each chapter, Stamper addresses the typical ongoing lexicographical catfights—is “irregardless” a real word (technically), do people who write “it’s” instead of “its” deserve to die (no)—but also ventures into muddier terrain. How should “bad” words like “bitch” be handled? How to modernize the “nude” definition (in the pantyhose color sense) without racializing it? How to respond to the write-in campaign to eliminate the “same-sex” aspect of the “marriage” definition (because removing a word from the dictionary removes it from existence, apparently)?

The chapter on the word “take” is especially illuminating. You’d think the obscure ten-dollar words would require more work to nail down, but those are relatively easy; it’s the small words like “take” and “but” that are more demanding because they have so many different uses and senses, most of which native English speakers don’t even consider. I now have a vastly greater appreciation for the thousand and one small choices that go into every dictionary edition, and not only from the definers but the etymologists, word daters, pronunciation editors, and proofreaders who somehow corral the incorrigible, ever-expanding, often insensible English language into something approaching order.

But to do that, Stamper writes, requires all English speakers to think of the language not as a fortress to be defended within the paper walls of the dictionary, but as a child:

We love and nurture it into being, and once it gains gross motor skills, it starts going exactly where we don’t want it to go; it heads right for the goddamned electrical sockets. We dress it in fancy clothes and tell it to behave, and it comes home with its underwear on its head and wearing someone else’s socks. As English grows, it lives its own life, and this is right and healthy. Sometimes English does exactly what we think it should; sometimes it goes places we don’t like and thrives there in spite of all our worrying. We can tell it to clean itself up and act more like Latin; we can throw tantrums and start learning French instead. But we will never really be the boss of it. And that’s why it flourishes.

Hear, hear! And may dictionaries flourish along with it.

Saint Benedict in Technopoly

Perhaps it was because I had just finished reading Neil Postman’s 1992 book Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology when I started in on Rod Dreher’s latest, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, but I was detecting a subtle yet strong Postmanian vibe throughout the book. Then, when Dreher actually quoted Technopoly, I realized that wasn’t a coincidence.

First, a disclaimer: I am (briefly) in The Benedict Option. When Dreher put out a call on his blog for examples of Christian-run businesses, I emailed him about Reba Place Fellowship, the intentional Christian community that over the years has spun off church ministries into actual businesses, like a bicycle repair shop and an Amish furniture store. Months later, in a reply to my comment on one of his unrelated blog posts, he told me I was in the book, much to my surprise. And sure enough, on page 189 there was my name and a short paragraph adapted from my email about Reba.

I felt compelled to alert Dreher about RPF not only because I think they are a living, functional example of the Benedict Option in action, but also because I’ve followed Rod Dreher’s blog for a while, really enjoyed his books Crunchy Cons and The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, and hoped his new one would contribute to the conversation about religious engagement in civic life.

The Benedict Option really does feel like the secular successor to Technopoly. The two books share a pessimism about the Way Things Are Now and a dire outlook of what’s to come. Dreher’s thesis is that Christians have lost the culture wars and need to reconsider their embedded relationship with the wider (Western) culture, in order to strengthen what’s left of the Church before a new anti-religion dark age descends. This seems like a natural response to the trajectory of Postman’s theory of the Technopoly, which he defines as “totalitarian technocracy” and “the submission of all forms of cultural life to the sovereignty of technique and technology.

Written 25 years ago, several passages in Technopoly would be right at home in The Benedict Option, like the one about the erosion of cultural symbols:

In Technopoly, the trivialization of significant cultural symbols is largely conducted by commercial enterprise. This occurs not because corporate America is greedy but because the adoration of technology preempts the adoration of anything else. … Tradition is, in fact, nothing but the acknowledgment of the authority of symbols and the relevance of the narratives that gave birth to them. With the erosion of symbols there follows a loss of narrative, which is one of the most debilitating consequences of Technopoly’s power.

And Technopoly’s hollow solipsism:

The Technopoly story is without a moral center. It puts in its place efficiency, interest, and economic advantage. It promises heaven on earth through the conveniences of technological progress. It casts aside all traditional narratives and symbols that suggest stability and orderliness, and tells, instead, of a life of skills, technical expertise, and the ecstasy of consumption. Its purpose is to produce functionaries for an ongoing Technopoly.

Technopoly offers so much more to unpack, much of it specifically related to technology and education, but another nugget I thought aligned very well with Dreher’s Benedict Option is Postman’s call for “those who wish to defend themselves against the worst effects of the American Technopoly” to become “loving resistance fighters.” He defines a technological resistance fighter as someone who “maintains an epistemological and psychic distance from any technology, so that it always appears somewhat strange, never inevitable, never natural.”

Religious resistance fighters don’t “run for the hills” as critics of the Benedict Option would have it say. (Though Dreher does end the book with Benedictine monks in Italy literally running for the hills after an earthquake destroys their monastery—a reasonable action, but ironic given his frustration for the “run for the hills” criticism.) In fact, the work of resistance requires direct engagement within the larger cultural life. But it also requires deliberate and distinctive separation—if not physically, then spiritually, ethically, and intellectually.

Dreher bemoans the submission of churchgoers to the pressures of secular culture (i.e. the Technopoly), whether it’s the now widespread acceptance of gay marriage, the rootless and self-interested browsing of different churches, or the unfettered access to technology parents allow their children. The principles in the Rule of St. Benedict, originally established for sixth-century monks cloistered away from the chaotic post-Rome Europe, offer a way for modern Christians to shore up their spiritual discipline while reconnecting with ancient traditions.

Most of his proposals (neatly summarized here) should not be terribly controversial among committed believers, though some, like pulling your kids out of public school, seem unduly influenced by his alarmism and are much easier said than done.

But that seems to be his point: Christianity isn’t supposed to be easy. Monks don’t join a monastery to sit around and avoid the world; they work hard! They take the claims and commandments of their Savior and Scripture seriously and endeavor to follow them.

Postman has been proven right. He didn’t live to see today’s wholesale surrender to smartphones and Silicon Valley’s tech-utopianism, but he’d have a serious case of the “I told you so”s if he did. Whether Dreher’s predictions for the demise of Christianity also come to pass remains to be seen, but you don’t have to be a doomsday prepping zealot to realize that it is good to hope for the best while preparing for the worst.

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