If you step back from the endless flow of social media and the internet more generally, and sit down with a book from the past that appears to have absolutely nothing to do with the affairs of the moment, something curious and rather wonderful can happen. Unexpectedly and randomly — stochastically — you begin to perceive resonances with your own moment, with the concerns that you may have turned to the past in order to escape.
it would be better for all concerned if we were content to say that our political opponents are merely wrong. But that’s unlikely to happen, at least widely, because once you say someone is wrong you commit yourself to explaining why he’s wrong — to the world of argument and evidence — and that makes work for you. Plus, you forego the immense pleasures of moral superiority and righteous indignation. So speculation about our enemies’ motives will continue to be a major feature of our political life, which will have the same practical consequences as Old Man Yells at Cloud.
This is something I wrestle with, especially after reading Jacobs’ excellent new book How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World At Odds. Righteous indignation and moral superiority—the chief renewable energy source of cable news and Twitter—make for an intoxicating but lethal combo. They don’t negate the ability to think and explain reasonably, but they can easily overpower the desire to, and turn the tendency to emote first and think later into a destructive habit.
Jacobs is one of my favorite cultural and political thinkers. Clear headed, fair minded, intellectually rigorous and generous, his insights in this short book and on his blog are encouraging and timely: how to examine biases, how to reckon with cultural “others”, and how to engage in the hard labor of “working toward the truth” with a generosity of spirit and strength of character.
That last point is important. Lacking generosity and strength of character not only make us bad thinkers, but bad people. There’s a reason the book isn’t called How to Be Right:
When people cease to be people because they are, to us, merely representatives or mouthpieces of positions we want to eradicate, then we, in our zeal to win, have sacrificed empathy: we have declined the opportunity to understand other people’s desires, principles, fears. And that is a great price to pay for supposed “victory” in debate.
It’s especially difficult to engage with political opponents who are terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad thinkers. But the sooner we all realize how wrong we can be, and how good and healthy that realization is, the sooner we can become better thinkers and break the vicious cycle our unhealthy human tendencies trap us in.
Another thinker I highly respect is Andrew Sullivan, erstwhile blogger at The Dish and now weekly columnist. His latest tackles the danger of the “right side of history” fallacy:
No party, no cause, no struggle, however worthy, is ever free from evil. No earthly cause is entirely good. And to believe with absolute certainty that you are on “the right side of history,” or on the right side of a battle between “good and evil,” is a dangerous and seductive form of idolatry. It flatters yourself. And it will lead you inevitably to lose your moral bearings because soon, you will find yourself doing and justifying things that are evil solely because they advance the cause of the “good.”
Current events are bearing this out. Idolatry is one of the easier sins to commit because anything can be made into an idol, and we live in a culture that’s particular fertile ground for doing so.
Who are some current writers and thinkers you respect, and why?
I want to do more to account for what I read and watch. I do use Goodreads for tracking books, Letterboxd for movies, and my Logbook for all of them in one place. But between occasional reviews on the blog here and there, a lot of other noteworthy pieces of art pass through my consciousness almost without comment.
So I’m gonna blend my “Music of the Moment” feature with Kottke’s ongoing “recent media diet” feature (minus the grading part) into Media of the Moment to try to briefly highlight and recommend cultural bits I’ve encountered recently.
The Varieties of Scientific Experience by Carl Sagan. The latest selection for a two-man book club I’m in. Neil deGrasse Tyson should take notes.
How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds by Alan Jacobs. Jacobs is one of my favorite thinkers and writers, and in this book he fulfills a W. H. Auden line he quotes in the book: “Be brief, be blunt, be gone.” See also: The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction.
“The Imposter” by Béla Fleck. Watched the documentary about Fleck making a banjo concerto for the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, then got the CD of said concerto, and it’s great.
Landline. Really enjoyed Gillian Robespierre’s previous film Obvious Child, and she returns to form here with her muse Jenny Slate. I think I liked Obvious Child more, but this captures a particular time and family well.
The Florida Project. The latest from Sean Baker, the director of Tangerine, one of my favorites of 2015. Knew basically nothing about it when I saw it; I recommend the same for you. Best Actress for the lead.
Two Prospectors: The Letters of Sam Shepard and Johnny Dark. Always liked Shepard as an actor. After he died I heard about this collection of correspondence with his longtime friend and discovered a wise, searching, highly quotable dude.
On the Fandom-Industrial Complex and Moving Forward from Back to the Future
The day Back to the Future fans have waited for is finally here. The thirty-year countdown to October 21, 2015, one of the most well-known dates in movie history (despite how often it has been incorrectly reported on the interwebs), is over . There’s been an ongoing celebration of the trilogy on the internet and in real life: this Wired dispatch by Jason Tanz, “Fandom Eats Itself at New York Comic Con,” spotlights the kind of reception a widely loved favorite like BTTF gets in the more insular (yet quickly expanding) world of nerd culture:
The rowdiest panel I attended was about the film Back In Time, a documentary about Back to the Future fans. The documentarians presented themselves as Back to the Future fans, but also as fans of other Back to the Future fans, like the guy who spent more than $500,000 to buy the original DeLorean time machine. The audience greeted the documentarians as celebrities too, making them fans of fans of fans of Back to the Future.
Fandom is eating itself, but from the tone of the article and the culture at large you wouldn’t think this is a bad thing. Tanz describes the end of the panel, when the documentary filmmakers give away replicas of the specially produced Pepsi Perfect bottles featured in Part II to everyone in the audience. “Before the event,” he writes, “I had rolled my eyes at the promotion, a two-decade long-con of corporate sponsorship. But here, surrounded by red-vested Marties, whooping and stampeding toward the back of the hall, I couldn’t help but feel a begrudging thrill as I grabbed my goddamn bottle of Pepsi Perfect. What can I say? I guess I’m a fan.”
It’s not an exaggeration to say Back to the Future has been a foundational element of my life. I don’t remember when exactly I watched the trilogy, but middle school was when it caught on with a fury. Since then it’s embedded itself into my identity so thoroughly that I’ve heard from several friends and acquaintances that I’m the first person they think of to send BTTF-related articles, parodies, fake product announcements, and news bites of every stripe. It’s a distinction I’ve willingly cultivated over the years, what with my effusive writings on the subject, my collection of homemade and gifted memorabilia, my eager attendance at meet-and-greets with cast members, and my delight at two separate encounters (both arranged by my very accommodating father) with cosplaying Doc Browns.
So when I read articles like this, at the tail end of decades of brand-sponsored fandom, I’m conflicted. The incipient parade of new Star Wars films and its adjacent subculture has helped me see this phenomenon of superfandom from the outside. I’ve never been much of a Star Wars fan. This might be due to not watching them at an impressionable young age as I think was the case with many of its proponents. But, separating my impression of it from its iconic place in film history, I also don’t like them all that much. So when every scrap of news from the now Disney-owned Lucasfilm universe is alternately drooled over and dissected, I get that “uncanny valley” feeling of seeing another version of my BTTF-loving self that doesn’t quite feel right, that I’m prone to criticize or roll my eyes at without realizing how much it looks like me.
In a post called “Withdraw Into Yourself Forever,” Fredrik deBoer criticizes what I’ll call the fandom-industrial complex, the natural outgrowth of a cultural landscape littered with infinitely rebooted Superhero Brand franchises and their surrounding ecosystems that encourage you to keep on loving and buying it in perpetuity, and blur the lines between those two things. “It’s the creation,” deBoer writes, “of an economic, social, cultural, and even political infrastructure to convince you that your urge to dive deeper into the stuff you already like is always the correct feeling. It’s an ideology of taste that is totally unfettered by anachronistic compulsions to be more widely read, or to try new things, or to acquire a cultural literacy other than the stuff that you have always loved.” And it’s a phenomenon perfectly encapsulated in Wired’s dispatch from Comic Con.
I’m not advocating for consuming only new things or for abandoning the things you love simply because other people like them (nor do I think deBoer is). Rewatching favorite movies, or going back to an album that perfectly scores a moment or mood is a unique thrill—and that in our time is unbelievably easy to do. But I still try to subscribe to the tenets Alan Jacobs lays down in his great bookThe Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, which I’ve adapted for moviegoing here:
Whim: Watch what you want, when you want to, without shame.
Aspiration: …but don’t get stuck watching the same stuff—branch out and seek to be a better watcher.
Upstream: Seek out the older works that inspired your favorites and be challenged to “swim upstream.” It might be challenging sometimes but the rewards will be greater than just coasting downstream.
Responsiveness: Don’t be afraid to take notes and respond to what you’re watching—make moviegoing matter.
Slow: You’ll miss the little things if you view moviegoing as simply uploading information. Slow down and you’ll absorb more.
Jacobs meant for these to be an approach to reading books, but taken together they work just as well for a more balanced and thoughtful approach to consumption of whatever culture you’re into. They’re also a challenge for myself, and a reminder of what other good I could be missing every time I return to Hill Valley, however weirdly charming it is.
I’m not breaking up with BTTF. I married a Jennifer, for Doc’s sake. In 2015 no less . Our first dance was to the movie version of “Earth Angel,” which was immediately followed by a group dance with our bridal party to “Power of Love.” I think I’ve fulfilled my density. The trilogy will always be there for me to enjoy. But the hegemony it has enjoyed over my identity has begun to wane. I don’t want to withdraw into Back to the Future forever. I’m so grateful for its place in my cultural biography and for its fraternity of enthusiastic fans, but I’ve got the same blank page Marty and Jennifer got at the end of the trilogy when Doc says their future hasn’t been written yet, that it would be whatever they made it.
It’s time to explore a new future, and today is as good a time as any to begin doing so.
Footnotes 1.I think November 5, 1955, is the more important date, but who’s asking? 2.Believe it or not, this didn’t dawn on me until a few months before the wedding, which unfortunately didn’t happen in the Chapel O’ Love.
Ta-Nehisi Coates went all TNC the other night on Twitter (which is just plain fun to watch) to address the evergreen “___ isn’t a word” debate, a favorite parlor game of pedantic English majors everywhere. Addressing whether irregardless should be sanctioned as a real word when regardless was already acceptable, he ventured: “Worst argument is that there should be no words that already mean the same thing as other words. … Get rid of ‘beautiful’ because we already have ‘lovely.’ Lose ‘unattractive’ since we have ‘unappealing.'”
Except that that’s not the issue with irregardless. Irregardless is not a synonym of regardless; it’s a verbal typo of it. It’s most likely an accidental portmanteau of irrespective and regardless, both of which are “real” words. Beautiful is a synonym of lovely, but they each have unique definitions and etymologies and uses. People who say irregardless most likely mean to say regardless but have adopted the aberrational version of it. It would be like someone saying “beautilul” when they meant “beautiful.” If someone wants to give beautilul meaning as something other than a typo or mispronunciation of beautiful, great. I love making up new words. But absent that, beautilul is indeed a word in the strictest sense, but not as an acceptable synonym of beautiful.
This doesn’t mean irregardless isn’t word. As the OED’s Jesse Sheidlower said in an interview with TNC, “of course it’s a word.” It’s a thing said by people, so of course it’s a word. The question in this debate is whether it’s an appropriate word for the circumstances. I share TNC’s distaste of grammar fascists trotting out “That’s not a word” whenever someone deviates from the grade-school grammar line; however, I also share Alan Jacobs’ skepticism (contra Stefan Fatsis at The New Yorker) of the pure, unchecked descriptivist approach some dictionaries take with gate-keeping, or lack thereof. Not everything—word choice included—is always permissible, even in an instant-gratification culture where inconvenience is anathema and your right to be right is sacrosanct.
Some things aren’t and can’t be descriptivist, Jacobs writes:
This is reasonable in part because the relation between world and word is not unidirectional. People don’t use dictionaries only to discover the meanings of words they have encountered elsewhere; sometimes by browsing through dictionaries we discover that there are more things in heaven and earth than were dreamed of in our philosophies.
Brett McCracken was right to name Alan Jacobs’ The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction one of the five books recent college graduates should read. A quick yet deeply insightful read, this book was written, in the words of the author, for “those who have caught a glimpse of what reading can give—pleasure, wisdom, joy—even if that glimpse came long ago.” Jacobs writes not to those who have never liked reading, but instead to those who have grown accustomed to academic (i.e. obligated) reading or to “checklist” reading, whereby only “classic” or “important” books are deemed worthy of a reader’s time.
Jacobs provides some guidelines for how to read for fun:
Whim: read what you want, when you want to, without shame…
Aspiration: …but don’t get stuck reading the same stuff—branch out
Upstream: seek out the older works that inspired your favorites and be challenged to “swim upstream”
Responsiveness: don’t be afraid to take notes and respond to the text
Slow: you’ll miss the little things if you view reading as simply uploading information; slow down and you’ll absorb more
Though I read a lot as a kid and through adolescence (if mostly in school), I didn’t start reading for fun again until after college graduation. Faced with an entire life ahead of no-requirements reading (save for the brief graduate school detour), I plunged head first into reading books that greatly interested me. My palate has consisted mostly of history (specifically the presidential kind), nonfiction, and cultural topics, though I try to throw in a novel once in a while.
Like many people, I’m sure, I struggle with the concept of “so many books, so little time,” wanting to read as much as I can so I can get onto the next book. But in our distracted age, it’s important to practice mindfulness and deep thinking in order to buoy our increasingly attention-deficit brains. I want my mind to be strong and agile now and forevermore, if only so I can still shout out Jeopardy! answers when I’m an old man. Taking notes helps in that regard. Since I mostly use library books and can’t write in the books themselves, I keep a notebook nearby to jot down key points, new words, or cool names for future reference. I don’t take notes on everything; some books, like novels and memoirs, I think should just be enjoyed without the interruption of notes.
But whatever your strategy, I encourage you to read and read a lot. Jacobs’ book is the perfect defibrillator for those who have fallen off the reading wagon but want to get back on. As a formerly indifferent reader, I’m glad I rediscovered some literary locomotion. I can’t wait to see where it takes me.