“You there, varlet! Why so blithe?”

November 14, 2013

Meet Kevin Brooks, Chief Marketing Officer at FoodLink, a 10-year old startup that provides supply chain software solutions to help growers, shippers and retailers in the fresh food KBindustry. The role takes Kevin into Salinas quite often — the heart of the U.S. produce industry and home to many of California’s most significant agriculture companies. On these trips, Steinbeck is never far from his mind, particularly as he gets to know both the immigrant farm workers as well as the powerful farming families and their agents. But don’t let Kevin’s title and software experience fool you. His toque, scarf, and beard are dead giveaways. Yep, we have a serious reader on our hands.

Who are you?

I’m a third generation San Francisco Bay Area native, liberally educated husband, father and lapsed musician now living and working in a Swiftian land of software engineers and venture capital. I share Shakespeare’s birthday (and deathday), and I spent the summer after graduating from college teaching barflies about Bloomsday and serving Manhattans to Chicago bookies laying low on an island in Lake Michigan.

Kindle, audiobook, or good, old-fashioned paper pages? Why?

The story matters more to me than the medium, although sometimes the two are relevant as with works like Watchmen or Tristram Shandy. I’m not a big fan of audiobooks. The visual of a word, sentence, paragraph is important to the shape of a story. With me, that story takes a beating because I’m rough on books, snatching a page or two in all sorts of places and usually in the stolen moments between business and family obligations. We don’t have a lot of storage space in our house so I tend toward digital these days.

What is the greatest treasure you’ve unearthed at a used bookstore? Describe.

Shortly after college in the pre-Internet years I was living in St. Paul, MN, and frequently on the lookout for something by the great Russian Futurist, Vladimir Mayakovsky. One grey winter day in a scruffy bookstore between used car dealerships not too far from one of the local colleges I found a great English translation Mayakovsky’s poems. The book proved eventful many years later as a conversation starter with the woman who later became my wife.

Is there a novel you dislike so intensely you’d like to will it out of existence?

That’s a bit extreme, although I suppose a case could be made for certain political or religious screeds. Even some of the dreadful old Soviet Socialist realism that I read back in Russian lit classes has its place (1,000 pages on a cement factory, anyone?).

What book do you put on the coffee table when you want to impress your guests?

At this point in my life I think a coffee table that doesn’t have my son’s toys all over it is fairly impressive – to me, at least. Impressive in this context would be William Steig’s original Shrek! — not that Disney dreck — featuring over-the-top prose such as this verbal assault on a hapless peasant standing in Shreck’s way: “You there, varlet! Why so blithe?”

What is your favorite unknown or under-appreciated book?

John Collier’s Fancies and Goodnightsnever fails to captivate people once I turn them on to it. It is a little gem of a story collection that covers a lot of ground, and most people have never heard of it.

What are three books you wish everyone would read? Why?

Joyce’s Ulysses, definitely. Pretentious? Perhaps, but it is basically the story of the English language crafted around the framework of a universal human theme: the struggle to return home. If you care at all about words, and even if much of it goes past you on a first read, Ulysses is a must. You emerge more attuned to the world. Cervantes’ Don Quixote also falls into this “must read” group. Arguably the first modern novel (written more than 500 years ago), you need to look past the entertaining yet simplified musical and go to the source. Long ago I had the opportunity to spend the day with the writer Carlos Fuentes, and he told me that Quixote is the foundation for most modern literature, and certainly for all Spanish language literature in the Americas. Even in translation, it is a marvel. And while Joyce and Cervantes are hefty, literary writers, I also think the sly genius of Eudora Welty in her collected short stories is something everyone should encounter. She is a master storyteller, stylist and close observer of people living among the troubled ghosts (brutal, humorous, proud, insane) of the American South. There are better Southern writers, but I know of none that have the range, creativity and compassion of Welty. As a bonus round (and not technically fiction), I think Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is essential for navigating many of the narratives of our modern world with a sense of sanity, perspective and wonder. Although published during the extraordinary year of 1776, I was surprised how readable I found the language and how thoroughly it transcended its time and subject matter.

What novel should replace the Gideon’s Bible in hotel rooms worldwide? 

John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. An astonishing picaresque, posthumously discovered in a drawer and full of the kind of dark mirth to which all travelers can in some way relate.

Is there a book that’s been raved about by many, even by people you respect, but just didn’t get what all the fuss was about, even to the point of questioning your own literary standards?

Interesting question. It is perhaps a sad testament to the literary standards of Silicon Valley that unless the subject matter involves Steve Jobs, people out here rarely discuss, let alone rave about books. A few years back I read Jennifer Egan’s widely praised A Visit from the Goon Squad. I don’t know what it is about books that pivot around aging rock stars or fans, but the construct always strikes me as Baby Boomer nostalgia. Which is fine, but just not my cup of tea.

Hannah Schwartz

October 17, 2010

Recently, Between the Lines had a very good reason to roll back the stone and amble about in cyber-space like a liver-spotted Lazarus in too-tight walking shorts. If you recoil at the image, don’t blame me. Blame today’s guest, who just happens to frequent my favorite coffee shop in the world, though I’ve never personally met her. I know this to be true because, after having logged-on to Crema’s wireless network, I was redirected to their Facebook page, where I found this tantalizing wall post: “Got the gallies for my new book — and of course I thanked Crema for letting me sit here day after day…” Hannah had me at gallies. For more, please visit her author’s website.

Who are you?

I’m Hannah Schwartz, a full-time novelist of paranormal suspense, cozy mysteries and traditional and paranormal YA. I’ve been reading as long as I’ve been writing and was the stereotypical “super-reader” up all night with the flashlight and stash of dog-earred paperbacks.

What was the last book you read? And how did you like it?

The “last book” I’ve read is a hard one since I never actually read one book – I’ve always got one in the purse, one on the nightstand, a few for research and a few just for fun. Most recently I finished (and loved) Sophie Littlefield’s A Bad Day for Sorry — heroine Stella Hardesty is both bad-assed and tender. For research, I most recently lost sleep over Fiction and Forensics and a few criminology textbooks. I’m toting around Wintergirls which is a teen book and Jonathan Hayes’ Precious Blood just to round things out.

Why do you read?

Why I read changes every fifteen minutes. Of course there is the general escapism that fiction supplies — there is also that odd sense of connection with a character, a time, a story, an author while being completely disconnected from your current surroundings. I read to remind myself that someone, somewhere, knows that ‘hella’ ‘I could of‘ and ‘I could care less’ are perversions of innocent grammar. I read to learn about the world, to forget about the world, to consider how I would change the world — via literature. But mostly I read because to me, it’s life-sustaining. I know that sounds pompous and melodramatic, but I can’t remember a time when I didn’t read or didn’t survive by disappearing into a book. And yes, I understand that last line may have been lifted from an old Reading Rainbow episode, but it’s still true.

Kindle, audiobook, or good, old-fashioned paper pages? Why?

For me, nothing can replace good, old-fashioned paper pages. Otherwise, it’s just not a book. I’ve listened to my fair share of audiobooks but to this day, I don’t consider the books that I’ve “listened to” as read. They were heard — words manipulated by the speaker rather than tossed around in my own head. As for Kindle, I hear the argument that people read too fast and don’t want to schlep around the weight of actual books. Call me neurotic (and I am not denying that I am), but the weight of a book in my bag/purse/carriage/whatever/ makes me feel secure, happy, and one step removed from the liver-spotted man in too-tight walking shorts and black socks coughing on me in the line at the Kaiser pharmacy.

What is the greatest treasure you’ve unearthed at a used bookstore? Describe.

I’m a huge T.S. Eliot fan and whenever I find a used bookstore I always try to ferret out something I don’t have. Years ago I stumbled on a first edition, mint condition copy of his Quartets — a rather rare printing. I would have paid an arm and a leg for it, but the kid only charged me 3 bucks. Should my as-yet unborn children decide to pry it from my cold, dead hands and hock it on eBay, they’ll easily take in just over $3,000.

What was the last book you read that made you laugh out loud?

Celia Rivenbark’s Stop Dressing Your Six-Year Old Like a Skank. It’s impossible to keep a straight face when you nip into chapter 14 titled, “Reality Bites: Super Skanks Lewinsky and Hilton are Fun to Watch, but Those 100lb Toddlers Rule!” …even if you are in church.

Is there a novel you dislike so intensely you’d like to will it out of existence?

I would like to will the entire Twilight series out of existence and wipe it, the pasty Rob Pattison and his moody, single-expression Bella right out of our collective consciousness. And let me begin by saying that generally, I love YA fiction. I think it is definitely an under-appreciated genre that has blossomed both in style and subject over the last five to ten years. Teens are smarter, sassier, moodier and thinner than they were when I was young; so many authors address this, writing with a sophisticated style or covering subject matter that is adult but applicable — consider L.H. Anderson’s Speak or McCormick’s Sold. And then there’s Twilight. While I’m all for fun “junk lit” (the old Sweet Valley High series comes to mind) I readily rally against “crap lit.” Seriously—how many times can one character mope in one series?

# # #

If you or someone you know wants to stroll Between the Lines, I encourage you to contact me. See Bio.


April 17, 2010

When Between the Lines (BtL) launched in July, 2009, I had big dreams. I imagined it would become as wildly popular as Avatar or Glee, or at least as widely snickered at as Jesse James, a.k.a. The Vanilla Gorilla. (I wonder, can Vanilla sign I’m sorry like Koko?) Alas, BtL hasn’t gained any celebrity at all. In fact, BtL has one (count it!) one e-mail subscriber. And that hardly counts because she has an unflattering crush on me—sorry, hotChick4books. BtL averages about 2,300 hits per month, which seems like a tidy sum. But when you factor out the lame-ass search terms like “why?” or “outhouse,” that tidy sum gets decimated, fast. But my biggest complaint by far is the excessive amount of time it takes to find people—good, funny, insightful readers—who like yarnin’ about books. It’s wreaking havoc on my reading, you see, and that’s simply unacceptable. I’m six months behind on Proust! I’ve delayed Dickens! And who knows when I’ll get to Agnar Mykle and Graham Greene. So. After a lot of soul-searching, BtL is checking into sex rehab, where it can take a good, long look at itself. Sex rehab, not isolated confinement. Which means that visitors are welcome. So if you or someone you know want to help BtL on its path to recovery, drop me a line. I’ll send questions, which I’ve patiently stored like a squirrel, and you can take a crack at them. Lastly, I’m blogging at Interpolations where I periodically share my thoughts on books and stuff.


April 14, 2010

You have no clue how difficult it was for me to land this week’s guest. He’s elusive like a snow leopard. Mongths ago, we exchanged a few non-threatening e-mails, but I must have ultimatley frightened him because he bolted for the treeline—and was gone. But when your quarry is a rockstar in J.M. Coetzee scholarship who, like Sting and Prince, is only known by a single name, you hunker down and wait patiently. It’s with great pleasure that I introduce to you the man currently known as Erik.  

Erik's mug is anyone's guess

Who are you?

I’m a doctoral candidate, a college instructor, a writer, an unabashed Cincinnati Bengals fan, and, if the spam folder of my email is any indication, part of the target audience for some very peculiar products and services. I am also the editor and publisher of Sobriquet Magazine.

What was the last book you read? How did you like it?

Not counting books I have re-read for my dissertation or in preparation for the classes I teach, the last book I read was Simone de Beauvoir’s The Coming of Age, her sadly neglected study of senescence. It’s erudite, angry, compassionate, pessimistic, impressionistic, analytical, and meticulously researched. I loved it, even though it was not always a pleasant text to read.

What book do you put on the coffee table when you want to impress your guests?

Peter Jandreus’s The Encyclopedia of Swedish Punk, 1977-1987.

Have you had a freakishly bizarre epiphany while under the influence of a novel?

I don’t know if I have ever had “a freakishly bizarre epiphany,” per se, but I have had several epiphany-like moments when reading. I vividly recall the first time I read Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, for instance. That was probably the first time I felt the power of fiction to tell truth in a way that was, for me, more real than anything I had ever encountered previously. From the moment I read the first line of the novel, I knew that fiction could do almost anything. I can also recall the first time I read Ahab’s pasteboard mask analogy in Moby-Dick and feeling, for the first time in my life, an almost religious reverence for the written word.

What is your favorite unknown or under-appreciated book?

Among American novels, I would have to say Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Liebowitz, Horace McCoy’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? or William Gaddis’s JR. Among global authors, I am partial to the fiction of Agnar Mykle, whose Lasso ’Round the Moon remains one of my all-time favorite books.

What is the greatest treasure you’ve unearthed at a used bookstore?

I found an extraordinarily well-preserved first edition of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s A Few Figs from Thistles one time.

Is there an author you wished had the ear of President Obama?

Since he recently published a novel, I can happily answer Ralph Nader.

Kindle, audiobook, or good, old-fashioned paper pages? Why?

Well, each format definitely has its virtues. I find that the tactile experience of reading a physical book is very satisfying. Turning pages can provide a very real sense of progress that I enjoy. Similarly, I love observing the slow progress of a bookmark as it moves from the front of a book to the back. Likewise, the creases and scuff marks that are the natural consequences of carrying a book from place to place are concrete reminders of the places and times I read the book. They can be like the dings and scratches on a car or bike: they individualize an object and make it one’s own. In other words, the creases and folds help merge the experience reading with the experience of living one’s life. I love a good audiobook, too. Since each performance is really an interpretation of a text, a good audiobook can really encourage the listener to evaluate his or her own reading of that text. For example, Ethan Hawke’s whispered reading of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, with its emphasis on the tenderness with which the author treats his subjects, transforms a masterpiece. It is a beautiful work of art in itself. E-readers have tremendous potential. Among other things, they will help keep books in print, make it possible for smaller publishers to reach wider audiences, and make student backpacks much lighter. I do believe they are the future of publishing, or at least a very large part of it. At present, though, I am still only lukewarm to e-readers. On a personal level, I dislike the look of e-ink and I do not like how long it takes for a page to “turn” because, like many readers, I often find myself turning back to re-read the beginning of a sentence that starts on one page and continues onto the next. But these are minor irritations and not likely to keep me from reading a book if I can only find it digitally. However, there are a handful of concerns I have that are of a more practical sort. For instance, while you can convert any CD, tape, LP, or 8-track into a suitable format to play on a digital media player, there is, as yet, no simple way to convert a physical book into an e-book. I also wonder about the effects of an e-reader boom on children’s books. Children’s literature is very image-oriented and the books, physically, are often unique works of art in their own right. I just hope publishers and retailers either find a way to keep that industry going or develop e-texts that will satisfy the many needs of our youngest readers.

Why do you read?

I read because I have to read. While this statement is certainly true in the most literal of senses (I teach literature and write literary criticism as a profession), I really mean that my being craves the written word. To use a tired analogy, reading is to the mind what lifting weights or running is to the body. If you want to maintain a certain level of health, you simply have to keep working out. Like the runner who feels fully alive only after he or she has had a good run, I feel fully alive only when I have read a really good book. I read to learn, to grow, to understand, to feel. I read to connect, to escape, to find answers. And I read to question those answers.

Read for a Change

April 9, 2010

Sally Weigle is a sophomore at DePaul Univeristy. She made her writing debut last fall with the novella Too Young to Fall Asleep. Besides reading and writing, she enjoys iced coffee, floral prints, and walking around bare foot. For more on Sally, please visit her website, where her published writings can be found.

Who are you?

I am a 19-year-old Chicagoan who spends my time biking, exploring, adventuring, writing, and reading. When I am not reading, I am studying to get a degree in English literature and when I am not studying, I am on the back porch of my apartment drinking coffee with friends.

What was the last book you read, and how did you like it?

The last book I read was Evasion, whose author is unknown. The book is published with CrimethInc. Workers’ Collective, and the author’s identity is purposefully kept from the reader in order to keep with the company’s underground, punk manifesto. The book chronicles a young kid who lives outside the confines of corporate America by train-hopping, squatting, and dumpster diving. I read it for research for my next story. There’s a whole culture of young anarchist punks running around America and writing about their experiences as they protest the capitalist structure. Although one of these kids wrote Evasion, there still is very little, if any at all, literary fiction on the subject. I’m hoping to delve into the subject of this sub-culture for my next story. Stay tuned.

Do you ever kiss a line, a page, or a cover of a book?

Yes, all the time! I have journals full of lines or pages of books, articles, comics and song lyrics that I have had the desire to kiss because it moves me. If my house were to set on fire, I would without a doubt grab my journals first to save from the flames. The last quote I wrote down was from an interview I read with author Paul Auster. He was asked about the “isolation fantasies” present in his fiction and said, “There’s love and certainly children you care about more than yourself. But nevertheless, we’re alone in our heads.” I totally agree. I’m a quiet person myself, but I’ve come to the conclusion it’s because my mind is elsewhere a good portion of my day. I’m a terrible driver for this reason as well. It’s not that I don’t know how to drive, it’s just that the minute I get into a car, my mind thinks of storylines or interactions I had with people that day or how the tree down the block looks mesmerizing with the daylight sun shining through its leaves. Even if I share my thoughts, at the end of the day, no one knows what’s going through my head.

What is the greatest treasure you’ve unearthed at a used bookstore?

Eugene Ionseco’s The Hermit. I had read Ionesco’s play Rhinoceros and fell in love with it. After reading it though, I wanted to see how Ionesco went about writing a novel. I had his novel The Hermit on my must read list for a year before I found it in a small, used bookstore in Chicago. I’m happy I did because I almost died when I read the following excerpt: “I thought that it was strange to assume that it was abnormal for anyone to be forever asking questions about the nature of the universe, about what the human condition really was, my condition, what I was doing here, if there was really something to do. It seemed to me on the contrary that it was abnormal for people not to think about it, for them to allow themselves to live, as it were, unconsciously. Perhaps it’s because everyone, all the others, are convinced in some unformulated, irrational way that one day everything will be made clear. Perhaps there will be a morning of grace for humanity. Perhaps there will be a morning of grace for me.” I read this in high school, as an introspective, curious person surrounded by many self-absorbed teenagers, so the quote resounded with me, to say the least.

Can wisdom be found in novels?

I read because I am so adamant that wisdom can be found in novels. The amazing thing with literature is that it changes people in the most effective way. People rarely change their lifestyle or mindset because someone tells them to. Literature, on the other hand, allows a person to go through the conflict of another individual as if they are going through it themselves. And if the story is successful, the reader changes at the end of the story with the protagonist. It’s a different kind of wisdom in novels. The reader is given enough freedom to decide whether or not they want to be changed and in what way they want to be changed.

How important is plot to you?

Very, very important. For a long time, I wrote stories without plots. It was more akin to poetry. Now I write plots and storylines and poetry naturally surfaces in my writing. If I’m lucky, not only does poetry surface but so does theme and meaning. In the beginning of my writing process, all I start with is a plot. I do this because I think the plot is the part of the story that needs to be crafted most carefully. It rarely comes out organically. If you try to write without thinking of plot, most likely you will end up writing a story without action and thus, no clear beginning or end. Plot needs to be imagined, forced and constructed before writing even begins, in my opinion. Although, rarely do I construct just how the character deals with the plot. Almost every aspect of writing for me springs forth from me during the writing process, except for plot. That being said, as a reader, the plot doesn’t usually become the main component of the story for me. I do not need a lot to happen but I do need something to happen. The characters and the writing are most important when reading, but I think the plot needs to be there, almost invisibly.

Getting Right with Ron

March 26, 2010
“The true life is elsewhere.” —Rimbaud

Über lit-blogger and director of e-marketing strategy at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Ron Hogan is the author of Getting Right with Tao, a contemporary and highly vernacular riff on the philosophical classic by Lao Tzu. When you spend as much time as Ron has reading, thinking, and writing about the Tao te Ching, some of its grandeur will rub off on you. I know this to be true because Ron, bless his pure, unruffled soul, hasn’t finished any of the Pynchon novels he’s started — yet is free from guilt, shame, or embarrassment. His favorite novelists include Dawn Powell and Philip K. Dick. For more on Ron, please visit Beatrice.

BtL: How’s your inner Tao?   

Ron: I’m feeling good! I’m not perfect, not by a long shot, but getting this book out feels like a fantastic step in the right direction.   

BtL: Well, let’s start with the quandary: We can’t talk about Tao. We can’t name it, touch it, hear it, or desire it. So what the hell is Tao?   

Ron: I’m going to skip all the fancy koan answers I could give and just say it’s a process, or a way of being. I was going to say state of existence, but that implied a condition of stasis that I didn’t really think applied. And then I was going to say it was an approach to life, but “approach” implied a deliberate, conscious effort — and that’s partially true but I think when you get right enough with Tao, the process becomes more natural. You don’t do the right thing because you’re setting out to do the right thing, you do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do.   

BtL: Ok, so Tao isn’t a thing. It’s not even the totality of things. But it’s a way of being. At the risk of sounding Heideggerian, it’s a way of being in the world. Not all ways of being are equally right with Tao, yeah? Some ways are better than others. Can you say something about desire and possession and how they corrupt Tao?   

Ron: Let’s frame getting right with Tao for the moment as an attitude of radical openness, a receptive stance that enables you to accept any set of circumstances or conditions on its own terms, and determine the best course of action by understanding what the situation truly requires. By that definition, desire and possession — the valuing of one thing over another —”corrupt” Tao by privileging our preferences over objective appraisal. That’s not to say that our preferences can’t coincide with objective appraisal; simply that we should be mindful not to confuse the two.   

BtL: This passage here caught my eye. It does a nice job of capturing some of the key themes of Taoism. I’ll quote it here in full as a prelude to a question.   

Get rid of sanctity.
People will understand the truth and be happier.   

Get rid of morality.
People will respect each other and do what’s right.   

Get rid of value and profit.
People will not steal if they do not desire.   

If that’s not possible, go to Plan B:   

Be simple. Be real.
Do your work as best you can.
Don’t think about what you get for it.
Stay focused. Get rid of all your crap.   

BtL (continued): U.S. consumer culture is rife with materialism. After all, without our iPod or Wii or Old Navy cargo shorts or Prius or Elmo Tickle Hands or Trader Joe’s Chocolate Joe Joe, we grow sullen and moody. Isn’t Taoism really a form of anti-Americanism?   

Ron: I can’t speak for “Taoism,” which is no more a single set of beliefs than “Christianity” is, and I suspect many people who self-identify as Taoists would say I’ve grossly misrepresented what they believe… which is probably true. But, heck, why limit ourselves to anti-Americanism when we can be ruthlessly anti-nationalist? Or maybe the point isn’t to reject national/cultural identity altogether, but to recognize its arbitrary, artificial qualities and realize that you’ve chosen to “be an American,” and you could just as easily choose to be another type of American. (Those of you reading this in other lands, feel free to substitute the relevant descriptors.) Which actually raises the interesting point of whether “U.S. consumer culture” is the most accurate representation of “being an American,” doesn’t it?   

BtL: It does, absolutely. I love the Declaration of Independence, for instance, but not the Second and Twenty Sixth Amendments, which are pretty daft in my opinion. I love Melville, Thoreau, and Cormac McCarthy but feel a twinge of fear or disgust when I hear a Republican or Democrat talking about the “axis of evil” or “hope, unity, and change.” That’s the trouble with being a “good” American — it’s not at all clear what it means. At least not to me. There’s much to love in our country, to be sure — beautiful landscapes, democratic ideals, egalitarianism, and so on. But there’s much to sorrow over, too.   

Ron: I was actually thinking along these lines as I was pondering the background questions you posed me — I’d tapped Richard Rorty’s Truth and Progress as one of my all-time favorite books, in that it’s had a deep and lasting impact on my thinking even though it’s been well over a decade since I last looked at it, but while I was rifling through my mental card catalog I’d remembered another book of his, Achieving Our Country, where he explicitly links his brand of pragmatism to a particular strain of American political reform, particular visions of what American society was meant to be. Rorty’s probably my favorite late modern philosopher, when all’s said and done, because of his beliefs about what philosophy was intended to DO — I’m grossly oversimplifying, but he basically said, look, we can sit around and argue about what human nature is, OR we can decide what we want our society to be like and then go out and do things that could make it be that way. He’s about confronting the problems that are right there in front of you instead of looking for some fundamental Truth with a capital T, and I feel like that resonates with a lot of what I found in Lao Tzu.   

BtL: In your book, you point at Tao by saying what it’s not. It’s not greed. It’s not ambition. It’s not personality worship. But sometimes, you point at Tao by saying what it is. You describe it as water, wind, or rain. As a river, an ocean, or a wave. These metaphors suggest that Tao is simple, pure, and natural. But contemporary culture isn’t any of these things, mediated as it is by broadcast and social media, by mobile devices, and other pervasive technologies. What concrete suggestions do you have for simplifying our lives? How do we step out of the cultural hubbub? And does Taoism give us any norms of behavior in an increasingly mechanized world?   

Ron: “Plan B” seems like a fairly explicit norm of behavior, doesn’t it? We could approach this by pointing to Rousseau’s assertion that ALL culture has a corrupting influence on men and women (which can be mitigated by establishing the proper social contracts), and asserting that modern technology is only a more pervasive form of “mediation” — although in place of that term, I’d prefer to reference Althusser’s “ideological state apparatuses” if we’re going to be talking about cultural institutions that reinforce codes of behavior — because, as Althusser notes, ANY ideology is an expression of an “imaginary” (or, to use your language, “mediated”) framing of our existence in the material world. And once we agree that whatever ideology we’re living under now is “imaginary,” we can entertain the possibility of choosing another way to imagine our lives — and one way that we can choose is “getting right with Tao.” But, as impressive as name checking Rousseau and Althusser might have been, you didn’t want philosophical justifications, you wanted concrete steps. And the answers I have on that front aren’t especially radical, and you’ve probably heard them from other people: Honor people’s dignity. Pay more attention to what’s going on around you. Meditation helps. Alternatively, Brave Combo’s “Do Something Different” is maybe the most Taoist song I know:   

BtL: We learn that Tao is neutral, that Masters treat everyone the same. They don’t worry too much about good or evil. This sounds edifying until I’m reminded of Dick Cheney or former Justice Department lawyer John Yoo, and other agents of malady. How I wish a four-star general of Tao would give them a good dressing down! Doesn’t morality require the very things Taoists caution us against, things like worry, concern, anxiety, engagement, judgment, and action?   

Ron: Taoism isn’t about sitting on your ass and smiling blissfully, and it’s not about ignoring what’s wrong with the world; there are a lot of passages in the Tao Te Ching about warriors and about going to war, for example. So it’s very much a philosophy of engagement and action… and of careful judgment. It recognizes that sometimes the solution to a pervasive problem is deeply unpleasant, but that it needs to be done — think the pivotal scene of “Old Yeller” here. The retort to this is obvious — Cheney and his cohorts believed they were executing the necessary solution to a pervasive problem — and, honestly, if I had a better counterargument than “well, they were wrong and I’m right,” I’d have laid it out and crushed their schemes with my keen intellect years ago. As for “worry, concern, and anxiety,” I don’t believe that these responses to circumstance are NECESSARY to morality, although they are certainly capable of informing it.   

BtL: You write, “If a leader gets right with Tao, people will follow him on instinct.” In a recent CNN poll, we learn that 49% approve of President Obama’s job performance while 50% disapprove. Clearly, people aren’t following him on instinct. Can we safely conclude that Obama ain’t right with Tao? What should he do to improve his Tao quotient?   

Ron: I said “people,” not “everyone.” OK, nitpicking aside, “getting right with Tao” isn’t like having an on/off switch where you’re out of whack and then, click, you’re aligned with the cosmos. It’s a process, and some days are better than others, and progress doesn’t prevent you from making mistakes. Now, a man who went from being a state legislator to the president of the United States in four short years clearly appeals to more than a few people on an instinctive level. Does that mean he’s perfect? Of course not. What could he do better? I risk presumptuousness, but I believe that Obama’s otherwise noble desire for consensus-building has, in some cases, impeded progress. Yes, we would probably have had a long, drawn-out fight over health care if the Democrats had built their strategy around a simple majority rather than the filibuster-proof “supermajority.” But that fight could have been helpful in revealing peoples’ characters, which in turn might have changed other peoples’ perceptions. So I guess my advice would be: People gave you this power for a reason; don’t hesitate so much about using it.   

BtL: Are you troubled that a Nobel Peace Prize-winning President is escalating a war in Afghanistan and expanding it into Pakistan?   

Ron: The irony is obvious, but I wouldn’t say I’m “troubled” by it – I mean, one ought to have sufficient grounds to question the wisdom of this particular policy without invoking the mythology of the Nobel — a mythology that was invested in President Obama without any anticipation or expectation on his part. Frankly, if there’s a disconnect, the root cause to me wouldn’t be “President Obama is not conducting himself like a Nobel laureate ought,” but “This Peace Prize was awarded in a manner inconsistent with the Nobel tradition.”   

BtL: You write, “Masters get their point across without saying a word.” Interestingly, that’s all novelists use — I mean words, sentences, and other tricks of the narrative trade. If language is often a barrier to higher truths, how do master novelists elicit transcendent experiences? Who among them helps us grasp the eternal mystery of Tao? What works of theirs should we read?   

Prose,—words in their best order; poetry,—the best words in their best order.

Ron: I feel like this is starting out with too simple a conflation, although part of that is my own fault for writing such stark passages as the one you quote or “those who talk, don’t know.” That said, it’s good you qualified that question with the word “often.” Maybe it would’ve been more accurate for me to have said “Masters get their point across without saying any more than they have to,” although that’s not quite as exciting, is it? What’s the Coleridge line about prose: words in their best order? I don’t know that I can do to improve on that — the more I think about this topic, frankly, the more I find myself dwelling on the idea of “eliciting transcendent experiences” and eliciting imitations or impressions of transcendent experiences, and extending this beyond the novel to other art forms, and then at some point circling around to the Stargate sequence from 2001.   

BtL: I agree. Music, painting, and movies can work amazing magic. But let’s stick with novels, if you don’t mind. Besides hitting absinthe and Scotch like it’s 1999, novelists are also very good at using words, at describing things, at evoking people, places, moods. But language and the things it describes, the stories it tells, and the characters it creates aren’t Tao. In your opinion, which novelists are especially good at helping us get right with Tao? What novels have profoundly impacted you in this respect? Of course, I worry that these questions are bogus, Ron. But what I’m trying to get at, and having precious little success, I worry, is the connection between Tao and the readerly life, a life that’s devoted to sentences, characters, and stories. Perhaps you can say something about that connection?   

Ron: There’s a passage in Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon that has stuck with me since I read it about 15 years ago, which I’d like to share with you:   

If we read the Western Canon in order to form our social, political, or personal moral values, I firmly believe we will become monsters of selfishness and exploitation. To read in the service of any ideology is not, in my judgment, to read at all. The reception of aesthetic power enables us to learn how to talk to ourselves and how to endure ourselves. The true use of Shakespeare or of Cervantes, of Homer or of Dante, of Chaucer or of Rabelais, is to augment one’s own growing inner self. Reading deeply in the Canon will not make one a better or a worse person, a more useful or more harmful citizen. The mind’s dialogue with itself is not primarily a social reality. All that the Western Canon can bring one is the proper use of one’s own solitude, that solitude whose final form is one’s confrontation with one’s own mortality.   

Ron (continued): Maybe that’s a form of getting right with Tao; it sure feels like one to me.   

Beyond that, the novel I’ve read more times than any other in the last quarter-century is Masks of the Illuminati by Robert Anton Wilson — and I keep coming back to that book because I think it’s one of Wilson’s best articulations of the need to constantly question one’s experience of “reality,” to understand how that experience is being framed and to train oneself to see what is outside those frames. And, as loose as it is, it’s still the sharpest fiction Wilson produced. I once proposed that it was the greatest American novel of the back half of the 20th century, and I was not being facetious.   

BtL: Can I confess something?   

Ron: Absolutely.   

BtL: I wanted to criticize your book. I mean, I wanted to read your book in order to criticize it. I’ve read it now many times and was bound to find something to niggle over. But, initially, the wanting to find a problem was very important to me. And guess what—I found it, the problem. Your book isn’t the Tao te Ching. Not by a country mile. But then I realized that the Tao te Ching isn’t the Tao. And if the Tao te Ching isn’t the Tao, what does it matter if yours isn’t the Tao te Ching. It doesn’t. Neither catches Tao like a monkfish in a net. They’ve got that in common. This realization was very liberating. It allowed me to read and re-read your book, enjoy its observations, its simplicity and humor, and come away from it pleasantly reminded of the things that matter most. So thank you. I feel well shriven!   

Ron: Thank you! I’d be the first to admit what I’ve done isn’t Lao Tzu; my goal was more to give voice to the inspiration I found in the Tao Te Ching, and to do it in a voice that could convey that inspiration effectively to a contemporary audience. I hope anyone who reads my version treats it as a starting point rather than a culmination. And by that I don’t just mean that you should go read a translation by somebody who actually knows Chinese — I hope readers will think about Lao Tzu’s advice and how it might apply to their own lives on an ongoing basis.

Literary Prose in C Minor

March 14, 2010

A soprano and pianist, Barbara Rathbone is a classical musician with a unique and interesting gift — I’ll let Barbara explain. And although her gift may be difficult for others to grasp (I know I can’t), one thing is abudantly clear: With a deliciously Dickensian name like Rathbone, it’s not surprising that she has fingered the keys of language and written a novel, which is currently in search of a publisher, called The Conductor’s Wife. It’s an exploration of the inner experience of a musician and synaesthete. “Syna-what?” Read on…

BMRWho are you?

I am a musician — a classical singer and pianist who writes. I write because there is so much music in words.

What was the last book you read? How did you like it?

The Order of Things by Michel Foucault. It’s dense, thought-provoking and fabulous.

We often praise people for their perspective. But in your case, you really do have a unique perspective on the world. Can you explain synesthesia for our readers here at Between the Lines and describe how it affects your experience?

Synaesthesia is simply an overlapping of the senses. It is not that uncommon and there appears to be a link to creativity. Some synaesthetes “see” letters and numbers in three-dimensional space, some even taste the flavours of different words or sounds. Some see musical notation and units of time in three-dimensional space and/or in colour. In my case, I “see” music in coloured patterns; words, letters, musical keys have a particular colour and I also “see” units of time in colour and three-dimensional space. My synaesthesia is known as cognitive grapheme synaesthesia. For me, it adds a sensual intensity to my experience of the world around me, particularly an added depth to my experience of music and the sounds of words and language. Sometimes it is distracting but only in a very pleasant sense! It is natural to me but when I describe it to some people it seems to them entirely alien.

Of course, I’m dying to know which of your favorite novels evoke the most colorful experiences.

All words provide me with colour but I have always responded to poetry in particular. I like language to “paint” pictures and soundscapes which lift one emotionally. I like dark, rich-coloured words and novels with a full range of human experience; the types of books that stir the soul. I loved the Brontës as a teenager, particularly Emily and Wuthering Heights of course. I also love prose poetry and epic poetry such as Dante, Byron and Eliot. Russian and French literature have always had a strong appeal. Unsurprisingly, in this respect both Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina affected me profoundly. There is a theme there! One of my favourite writers ever is Milan Kundera, whom I have read in English and French but not in Czech! I love his perspective — searching, philosophical, full of aphoristic wit. A short novel I have always adored is Utz by Bruce Chatwin — Prague set, skillfully observed and very alluring, like the Meissen figurines the eponymous hero collects.

If literature were music, whose body of work is Beethoven’s
Symphony No. 9?

That would have to come under the banner of the romantics – Byron, Schiller (he wrote the “Ode to Joy,” so why not?!) but also later writers/thinkers and poets in that vein — Walt Whitman perhaps. It brings us big ideas and humanism.

What are three books you wish everyone would read? Why?

Plato — The Republic. All life, all ideas — sophistry and faith in the work of humanity to create of itself. 

Milton — Paradise Lost. For sort of similar reasons. Great story too!

T.S Eliot — The Wasteland. Everything you would expect from a master craftsman of words. A voyage into the shape, strength and caprice of the English language.

Do you have any quirks, pet peeves, or superstitions when it comes to reading?

I am not good at reading when I am writing myself — so, apart from poetry, I tend to avoid it. I will always listen to music when I write and that way the words fall before me like ripened fruit.

What novel should replace the Gideon’s Bible in hotel rooms worldwide? Explain.

Anna Karenina, a great long, satisfying slice of all life. I wish I could read it in Russian!