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Lately, in between studying for law school exams and taking law school exams and doing the law school journal writing competition, I’ve been streaming superhero movies thinking a some about morality, and what it means, and its place in the law. It’s well known that the legal field can be a fraught place for morality, not least because the legal profession consists more or less entirely of either trying to help one person or group forcibly take things  (generally money, but also sometimes freedom, property, even life) from another, or of trying to stop that kind of taking from happening. Law is also a subject area where a lot of complicated elements get mashed together–money, power, religion, national identity, etc.–and so it can be legitimately problematic to figure out what is right and what is wrong, sometimes (or even what is true/false). Law (like literary criticism) dwells most comfortably within cracks and interstices and gray areas and uncertanties. Part of being a lawyer is finding those cracks and, sometimes, when they are absent, taking a chisel and opening some up. It’s no wonder that lawyers in general don’t have the happiest of reputations.

Plus, given the adversarial nature of the law, and the politically/emotionally/intellectually polarized subjects that come together in a lot of legal debates, it’s especially important to be sensitive to other opinions, and to give a fair hearing to all sides.

These concerns are of course less essential on a blog, where I’m free to anonymously rant or lecture or speculate about whatever I want. Those who come here looking for a balanced weighing of the issues will be disappointed.

Nonetheless, I have for the main part avoided politically charged subjects here, until my recent post on the gay marriage debate. That post, to my own surprise, generated a few comments and a little bit of confusion among readers, and so I thought it might be useful to address what some have rightly pointed out was probably the central problem in a somewhat incomplete argument: namely, that when I say that homosexuality is not immoral (or that it’s even possible for “God” to be “immoral”), I used a sortof unconventional definition of ‘morality,’ and by doing so, I skirted around what is probably the central issue in the gay marriage debate. I’m not going to adequately address that debate now–you have a whole internet to go to for that kind of thing–but I will try to explain what on earth I was talking about in my earlier post.

The problem is that ‘morality,’ like ‘love’ or ‘duty’, is a broad term that can sensibly encompass a range of pretty discrete meanings. The type of morality I was considering could maybe be characterized as a sort of loose approximation of Kant‘s categorical imperative (or, for you laymen, something like the golden rule of do unto others etc.). In doing so, I think I was trying to state a type of morality which is both universally applicable and appropriate for a legal context: a moral system that you could write into law. This is related to John Rawls’ veil of ignorance, and it’s a very abstract and pragmatic idea of morality.

The point being that this idea of morality (call it “liberal morality”) is in fact pretty fundamentally distinct from the way that most people talk and think about morals. I would suggest that most of us come to conclusions about “right” and “wrong” not by abstract utilitarian calculations but by reference to identity and tradition: what is right and wrong depends upon what group you belong to, what your history is, what language you speak, who your parents are, and what texts you hold sacred. I’ll call this “conservative morality,”♦ and it’s a much richer and more personal idea of morality–one that is bound up with identity and community and family–and so its no wonder that many conservatives tend to find liberal morality pale and unsatisfying and relativistic and even dangerous. The subjects that most concern liberal morality–whether something is harmful (ie. causes a loss of wealth, or an increase in pain)–are secondary in conservative moralities, which can assign even greater stigma to certain non-harmful activities.

While the term is politically loaded, it might be useful to say that conservative morality as I’ve formulated it demands a ‘politics of exclusion’: it’s based on maintaining a cohesive group. I’m talking not just about the moral code of religious organizations (which may restrict homosexuality, or women showing their faces in public, or eating non-kosher foods), but also the type of moral code you see in mafia movies (family first, don’t be a snitch), or even just in individual families (no feet on the table?).  It’s important to remember that exclusion is central to identity; to the extent that being ‘American’ means anything, it’s because America is different from other places (including, for better or worse, socialist European nations). Conservative morality is directly related to who we are as a country, and while it lends itself to jingoisim and us-vs-them absolutism and all the kinds of scary extremisms that accompany real ideological conviction, it is also connected with positive things like family and tradition that are obviously and perhaps tragically on decline in the modern world. 

This is, of course, a pretty facile dichotomy, but I think it might still be a useful way of looking at a lot of contemporary politics. For instance, it helps explain why so many of the arguments against gay marriage in the recent supreme court cases were so pallid and embarrassing, like for example the argument that the main purpose behind the institution of marriage is to produce children, which those poor lawyers for the defense had to deliver to the supreme court while keeping a straight face. It’s not that there are no good arguments for banning gay marriage; it’s that the actual reason for such a ban–that the majority of Americans find homosexuality to be morally repugnant (and if they feel otherwise, they should show it with their votes)–has already been declared constitutionally illegitimate in the case of Lawrence v. Texas. There the court held that this type of moral sentiment, unjustified by evidence of material harm caused by the objectionable class, is for legal purposes nothing more than “irrational prejudice.” A critic might point out, however, that the difference between “irrational prejudice” and “traditional moral values” seems to depend more on where you stand than on any objective evidence. Justice Scalia, who dissented in Lawrence, has argued that in a democracy the majority has the constitutional right to declare what kinds of behavior are right and wrong, so long as their will doesn’t contradict explicit confines of the constitution itself. This is not a weak argument; it was in fact the court’s position not that long ago, in Bowers v. Hardwick. 

On the other hand, I think that most of us, when really questioned, would say that the court should strike down laws that discriminate against a certain class of people without objective reason, regardless of the traditional moral values that might underlie that discrimination. Liberal morality doesn’t precisely discount conservative morality, but it does relegate it to the private sphere. The establishment clause is one way our constitution upholds this separation; the fourteenth amendment (as the Court has recently interpreted it) is another. There is, however, certainly room for respectful disagreement on the subject.

*My idea of politics is also very influenced by Richard Rorty, who basically said that since philosophy is often sortof a crock, and we can’t actually really have any absolute knowledge about abstract concepts like “good” or “evil,” we should instead focus our efforts and our laws on trying to cause as little harm to our fellow man as possible: to ameliorate suffering, and to avoid cruelty. That seems like a pretty sound policy to me.

♦I didn’t come up with this stuff all by myself. As with most of my blog, what you read has already been said better elsewhere. However, I couldn’t find the really relevant articles to link you to and I don’t remember what they are, so I’m just going to say that I know some of this is based on the work of Stanley Fish (as usual), and that the characterization of social conservatism in general probably owes a good bit to Ross Douthat at the New York Times, whom I read religiously. I also owe a lot to my favorite legal theorist, Robert Cover, whose book Nomos and Narrative is all about the way that public law interacts with the private legal systems of the smaller groups that it governs. Highly recommended.

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This post is brought to you by Ballast Stone Shiraz, from Australia (2009). It is a heavy, chocolatey wine with flavors of pepper and rich red fruit. It is very much what one expects from a good Australian Shiraz, and I think it’s just delicious. It’s also running at 15%, so I think “hearty” is an apt description.

I really enjoy movies. They don’t even have to be good movies, really; if there is just one character I like, or if the sword fights are well choreographed*, or if there are pretty shots of the natural world, I’m more than capable of enjoying myself. I am also a great lover of books (though with less time to read them than I would like), and I am always interested (sometimes in spite of myself) when books are adapted to film.

I think some books must be much more amenable to film than others. I’m not talking just about the difference between The Orchid Thief and Harry Potter, either. Plenty of legitimately popular novels, if faithfully adapted, would make pretty boring movies. This came to mind recently as I finished reading two extremely popular book trilogies, both of which are now being adapted into what cannot not become extremely popular movie trilogies.

The Hunger Games should make a good movie. Why wouldn’t it, with its reality show inspiration, action-movie violence, futuristic cities and broadly drawn main characters? The first book takes place primarily on television, which means that any time there is a risk of things getting boring, there is a man in an office somewhere ready to push a button and unleash a storm of fireballs or a pack of mutant wolves. More importantly, the lead character Katness Everdine (“may the odds be everdine your favor”) is, like Jason Bourne, a character who thinks through action: most of the time, she has no idea what she’s going to do until she does it (including in her most compelling move at the end of Book 3), which means both that we’re often surprised by her–since she is often surprised by herself–and that the director won’t be forced to work portraying a vivid interior life. By which I mean, most of the action in these books takes place in the form of events, not in the form of people thinking.

This doesn’t, of course, mean that the movie will be easy to market; there is some bleak stuff in those books, and (as I learned when I saw the movie adaptation of Watchment) bleak stuff has a way of becoming super bleak and horrifying when translated faithfully onto film. Nonetheless, these are cinematic books, and it stands to reason that they would make cinematic cinema.

Stieg Larsson’s Millenium Trilogy should not make such a good movie. It has compelling image in its bat-out-of-hell female lead, but it’s also a set of book in which the major plot points hinge on research done in a magazine office or in a cabin in the woods. Lizbeth Salander spends virtually ALL of Book 3 on a sick bed. I have a theory that some books read like they were written for film because many writers are just far more familiar with movies than they are with books.** Many fantasy books seem to be written by people more familiar with playing video games, with quests for hidden items and upgrades that come from the purchase of new weapons. Larsson’s books, on the other hand, are concerned with solving puzzles and researching historical archives. Both are more interesting to see on paper than in real life.

The same problem plagued Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, in which moviegoers were treated to the sight of long-haired Tom Hanks going from museum to church and thinking about things until “Aha!” he’s solved the puzzle! On to the next church/museum! The story was tedious enough that even the presence of Sir Ian McKellen was not quite enough to save the film.

It used to be the case that when a director turned a book into a movie–even a really beloved book–certain artistic liberties would be made.  Since The Lord of the Rings, however, I feel like there has been a sort of boom in hyper-faithful movie adaptations, maybe especially in the genres directed toward geeks and children◊. One of the interesting results of this phenomenon (or maybe just an interesting result of film adaptations in general) is that elements that are strengths in the novel (ie. nonlinear narrative, de-centered storylines, long passages of interior monologue) go on to become confusing or boring in the movies.

But then, sometimes movies that should be boring go on to be really good. And sometimes movies that should be really good go on to be boring. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I’ve heard, is a pretty enjoyable film. This may have something to do with the fact that it is directed by David Fincher, a man who really knows what he’s doing.

There are books currently being adapted to film which should, probably, make really good movies. Ender’s Game comes to mind (although the last fifty pages or so will be tricky). Then there are movies like Cloud Atlas which seem so poorly suited for adaptation that they are even more interesting. Six separate stories with dramatically different tones and only minimal over relation to each other; that sounds like a challenge to adapt.

*Actually, my love for exciting swordfight choreography deserves a blog post of its own. That post will probably consist almost entirely of clips from Zhang Yimou films and The Princess Bride and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Especially this one: 

**I’m certainly not exempt from this rule. My novel-in-progress is a zombie story (and were Zombies even a thing before Night of the Living Dead?), and one of the main characters is an actress (or rather, was an actress before the apocalypse, back when they still had, you know, movies).

◊ And is it a point against them or in their favor that these most quirky and obsessive sets of fans are so absurdly rigorous in their demands for filmmakers? Why don’t the Bronte fans fly off the handle whenever a new version of Wuthering Heights is made? (Experiment: cast a black woman as Jane Eyre, and see what happens on twitter)

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This post brought to you by Red Truck red, a California blend of Syrah, Petite Sirah, Cab Franc, and Merlot. Fruity is the word (berries, maybe plums), and fairly light. Easy-drinking. The label says “Like our hard working red truck, our winemaker travels throughout California selecting the finest grapes to craft this beautiful, bright wine.” It is, apparently, the Scott Brown of wines.*

Criticism is only as good as that which it criticizes. Actually, it’s rarely half as good as that. Nonetheless, I should note that I just this night finished the first season of Downton Abbey, and while I have my complaints (D.A. has yet to learn, as Mad Men has, that the history should always be secondary to the characters), I am more than a little impressed with this show. In fact, I am a lot impressed with this show, and some of the flaws (the melodramatic scenes, the not-quite-as-subtle-as-they-should-be romances) are to my mind really its strengths. If Season 2 is as good as Season 1, it may soon join my ‘top 5 tv shows’ list.**

Other thoughts I have on this season:

-I can’t be alone in being horrifically thrown off when long periods of time transpire between episodes. Like, Season 1 was supposed to encompass a year? Two years? I prefer to imagine that when an episode ends, all the characters just go to sleep until whenever I pull up the next episode on netflix. For the main part, that appears to be what happens (nobody ever mentions events from between shows), but there is still the occasional reference to time’s passage and I find that disconcerting. I’m told there is an even more jarring jump before Season 2 begins, but since Megavideo is down (and my illegal downloading knowledge is rudimentary at best), I’ll have to wait to see. I think this problem is probably enhanced when the show takes place in a historical period, since history (unlike, say, the time in ‘Seinfeld’) has been known to move forward. And change makes me nervous.

Maggie Smith! So much fun.

-I’m no marxist, but I have to say I’m really enjoying the way this show brings money back into emotional questions. Class, wealth, and social station are largely irrelevant to most of the other television I watch (see footnote for details), and I find it both disturbing and exciting to see a show that so overtly crashes the 1% against the 99. When I try to put a finger on it, what I love is not so much the depiction of inter-class movement (ooh look! Yon footman seeks to rise ‘bove his station!) as the unapologetic interpolation of economic questions into romantic concerns in the way that only a British period piece can do, as though money and love are not only related to one another but are in fact two sides of the same coin. Money (and I have noticed this more and more since I became an “adult”) insinuates itself into all private affairs, but this tv show is a little unique in the way it makes the potential husband’s finances (or the husband’s potential finances) as significant as his personality.

I’m not sure I explained that thought well. Let me elaborate, just slightly, by saying that what I mean is that Downton Abbey, the Abbey itself, is a possession. It’s not a character, it’s a thing, and that thing can be owned, or inherited, or accidentally acquired due to a freak iceberg accident. Matthew’s good character is very clearly separate from his ownership of the Abbey, but this show is not afraid to suggest that in many instances Who We Are can be significantly influenced by and even indistinguishable from What We Own. That each man is entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of Property, wot. And as for the servants, well, they can’t quite be bought and sold, but they don’t own themselves either. And really, who of us does?

-Does anyone else ever feel like all of Lady Mary’s problems would be solved, though maybe circuitously and not without some inconvenience, if she were just to leave the estate and go for a long solitary walk through the heath?Don’t all British estates have an adjoining heath? As in, she could meet some brooding but staunch-hearted delinquent who would eventually win her love in spite of the darkness of his past. Or, possibly, she would learn the value of her own independence, and would come to a fantastically tragic end, possibly being eaten by hounds. Or she would become a pirate. The heath in your British romance is rather like the enchanted forest in your German fairy tale, and nevermind if this tv show has more of E.M. Forster than of E or C Bronte.

In sum, I’m very much looking forward to Season 2.

*When I find the Liz Warren of wines, I’ll be buying it by the case.

**A highly prestigious list (I love to make meaningless lists of this kind), which currently includes
1. Mad Men
2. Batman: The Animated Series
3. Veronica Mars
4. Breaking Bad
5. 30 Rock

Alright, that storyline actually sounds a lot like what’s happening between Mr. Bates and Mrs. Smith, but my version there would be a great deal more heaving bosoms and also at least one more ghost/madwoman/pit of quicksand.

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This post is brought to you by Old Overholt Whiskey–perhaps the best bargain available in rye , and a delight with vermouth.

At the moment, I’m serving as online teaching assistant for a class called “analysis of literature”. The students are of the usual caliber, but the required reading materials are surprisingly enjoyable. We have some Kate Chopin (“The Story of an Hour“), and some Robert Frost (“Two Roads Diverged”), and even some Ernest Hemingway (“Hills Like White Elephants”).

The first week’s essay assignment called for the students to start writing essays about literature by making use of one of a list of critical techniques. Now, I don’t imagine that the authors of this course’s textbook had any ideas of creating a new generation of new historicists or post-post-structuralists–this was, for the majority of my students, the first essay about literature they had written in many years, if indeed they ever wrote one at all–and so the list of possible critical methods was both short and amusingly simplified. My students could choose from :

  • A formalist approach, in which the critic talks about how the “tools” the author uses to make his point, such as setting, symbolism, plot, etc.
  • A reader response approach, in which the reader asks (and I quote the textbook) “what captured my imagination? Was it a feeling, an emotion, a curiosity, or an inspiration? Did it involve a desire to escape a present or past association?”
  • A biographical/historical approach, which requires the critic to do research (which is not fun) and also to spend some time speculating on the author’s motives (more enjoyable).
  • An archetypal approach, which has something to do with universal themes and mythology and I’m pretty sure neither I nor my students understood what the textbook was going for, here.

Not surprisingly (unless you are me, apparently, because I was surprised), the vast majority of my students chose the technique  labelled reader-response. However, none of them used the terms “jouissance,” “interpretive community,” or “erwartungshorizont.” Instead, the technique’s name was used as a banner under which all manner of critical atrocities might be committed with impunity. The practice of reader response, to these students, was less about the process of reading, and more about “things in my life that are sort of like the things in the story, as long as you don’t read the story too closely.” For instance, James Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” produced reflections on “how I wouldn’t listen to my wife either, if she nagged like that,” and on “when I was a kid I used to pretend to be a World War II soldier in my back yard,” and also (surprisingly often) on “only God’s grace can save us from death.”

To which my complaint was (and I wrote this in the margins of the essays) that the term “reader response” is not an excuse to write an essay about yourself; you must still write about the book. That I am only interested in reading about their reactions to the text as a prelude to an explanation of what, specifically, provoked those reactions. That (alas!) being the authority on your own subjective understanding of literature does not free you from citing your sources. I did not mention to the students the somewhat more fundamental concept inherent in much of reader response criticism, that a division of “self” and “book” into separate entities is generally counterproductive for the reader, so that properly considered, you’re pretty much always talking about yourself when you talk about what you read (although the reverse is of course not generally true*). We can address the nuances of identity after next week’s essay, in which they’ll begin to tackle poetry.

I should also note that the most common response among my readers was, (again, not surprisingly) “literature is boring.” To which I responded “Indeed! How fascinating! Now tell me why, and how, and where specifically the author creates this effect of boredom. What boring literary devices are used in the process? What other boring things is this like, and unlike?” I’ll make critics of these kids yet.

*Except among graduate students.

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No room for globetrotting adventurers in the ivory tower.

http://www.mcsweeneys.net/articles/back-from-yet-another-globetrotting-adventure-indiana-jones-checks-his-mail-and-discovers-that-his-bid-for-tenure-has-been-denied

 

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Every year I do this thing where I watch all the movies nominated for Best Picture. Not necessarily before the awards show, but I make an effort. This has become more challenging since they raised the number of nominees a few years ago. Thus far, I have been putting off War Horse and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, because I am not really interested in “War Movies” or “Horse Movies” as genres, and because EL&IC looks like such a weepy schmaltz-fest that I couldn’t bring myself to go check it out. Also, I have a sense of guilt about not reading J. S. Foer’s book. Here are my thoughts about all the others, though:

Moneyball: Probably my least favorite of the movies on this list, if I were to rank them. Which I will (we’re doing these movies in order of worst to best). That said, I liked this. I was never super invested in the human beings in this movie; the real star was this idea of “changing the way the game is played…forever.” I’m not sure that was an actual quote. The best parts are when Jonah Hill is looking at a bunch of numbers and then the numbers  expand out and turn into clips of these quirky overlooked baseball players about to get their chance at the major leagues.

No wait, actually the best parts are when Brad Pitt is wheeling and dealing in very fast and not-entirely-comprehensible back-room trades to outsmart his coaches, the other team’s managers, and his cashless employers. That’s really where we get the nose-breakingly smart dialogue that Aaron Sorkin does best. Brad Pitt (champion eater) had a great year in 2011, and although this isn’t the movie he should win his academy award for, it was a really fun and actually a very modest performance. I liked it.

The Help: I just saw this one yesterday, so it’s fresher in my memory. Tate Taylor paints the south in cheerful oversaturated hues of bright green and yellow, and the whole thing feels just a little bit larger and kinder than life. There are no men worth mentioning in this movie, which is a notable fact in itself. The script has its cringe-inducing moments (“You broke her heart!”, Emma Stone accuses her mother through tearful eyes), and it’s a little too sweet for its own good, but there are no cringe-inducing performances.  Viola Davis, especially, is fantastic; her Aibileen is a kind woman eaten up from the inside by a private pain, and although she builds friendships throughout the movie, it’s really more about her struggle to be by herself. In a movie about community, and about what is shared among friends and what is endured in private, she finishes walking down a gorgeous tree-lined street, confident and alone.

Also, Jessica Chastain was really really great.

Midnight in Paris: I’ve never been a huge fan of Woody Allen. I don’t hate him, but I feel like his movies are usually more clever than they are good. This wasn’t precisely an exception, but I liked it more than most, in part because I really like France (and there are more gorgeous shots of Paris than I’ve seen in any movie sinceRatatouille) and I really like the 1920s. The movie belongs to the supporting cast. Corey Stoll’s Hemingway, especially, is enormously fun.

The Descendents: Like The Kids are Alright last year, this movie is so intimately focused on the quasi-mundane emotional challenges of its characters that it can be easy to forget how good it all is. This isn’t a flashy movie. It’s a sad and a funny movie with lots of small striking moments that you don’t realize how unusual and special they were until after you’ve left the theater and you can’t get them out of your head. George Clooney is getting some deserved publicity for this one, but the real impressive performance is by Shailene Woodley, who expresses heartbreak through sulks and wisecracks and petty acts of rebellion.

The Artist: Apparently this is expected to win everything. I can’t begrudge it that. I had a great time at this movie. There have been few movies in the last few years that made me laugh as often as this one (can we give any award to that little dog? I’m set to see it compete against the horse in War Horse for best animal actor, or best supporting beast, or something like that. No matter who wins, the acceptance speech will be the best part of the evening). It’s not a complicated movie, but it’s well made, and clever, and occasionally a little touching. It probably isn’t a fatal flaw that I was more inclined to laugh at both of the main characters than to really empathize with them. This also inspired me to netflix Michel Hazanavicius’s OSS 117, which was very funny in a very French way. I’ll be curious to see what Jean DeJardin does next.

Hugo: Everything in this movie looks new and incredible, lit in deep blues and gleaming golds (the 3-D has subtle advantages as well–a certain scene atop a clock tower, with the snow falling through the Paris sky, was both dazzling and vertigo-inducing), and the story is as good as it looks. I think Martin Scorsese is just spectacular all the time, and this is more than up to standard. In this movie, he creates a sort of a fantastic playground inside of a train station–complete with secret passages, hidden windows, vertiginous drops, and an runaway-hunting security guard like a more sympathetic version of the child catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang–and then gives us license to play in it. With its focus on a noble orphan who finds the family he doesn’t know he’s looking for, it’s a little like a Charles Dickens novel if Dickens had been a major cinephile. I don’t always like movies about children (lets face it, kids are usually a pain), but the ones in this movie are good, wholesome, innocent people that look clean even when they’re dirty and spend their time reading books and fixing clocks (and occasionally stealing the necessary baguette) instead of acting like the annoying hooligans you more often see in real life. They deserve their happily ever after ending, and so does Ben Kingsley’s George Melies: the injured Willy Wonka who needs to be coaxed back into his chocolate factory.

The Tree of Life: A big movie, overflowing with ambition and self-importance. When you watch the blue-ray, there is a message that comes up before the movie starts telling you to turn up the volume. This one deserves to be seen on a big high definition screen with major surround sound. I have never before seen any movie like it. It’s an impressionist film, without quite a clear plot but with a series of points (all of them incredible and detailed and original) that add up into something greater than the sum of the parts. It’s not so much a movie about growing up as it is about remembering childhood, and it proceeds through free-association and imagination like a dream or a novel by Faulkner. The kids are obnoxious hooligans, but they’re also real people. Brad Pitt (boldly unlikeable) tries to raise his sons tough and instead makes them resentful. Jessica Chastain, a boy’s idealized mother, levitates around the yard and talks about “the way of grace”. Also, there are dinosaurs. The soundtrack seamlessly mixes the sounds of people with the sounds of nature with shatteringly beautiful classical music, and somehow the whole creation of the universe and the fall and redemption of man gets pulled into the mix. None of the other movies on this list are as severely flawed as this one (Sean Penn frames the movie, yes, but what is he doing in the desert? He sure doesn’t know.), and none has less of a sense of humor. On the other hand, none of those movies aspires nearly so high. Without question, the best of the year.

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This post is brought to you by Claritin Decongestant, vintage 2011. I have a minor cold, and the only decongestants I possess, as it turns out, expired in January over a year ago. The internet refuses to tell me whether there is any danger in taking expired drugs (apparently some other less courageous bloggers are concerned about things like liability), but I’ll let you know if any unexpected side effects take place. From what I’ve been able to glean online, the dangers of pseudoephedrine include weird rashes, shortness of breath, and an inability to pee. So far, so good.

I finished Infinite Jest. I’ll be trying to wrap my mind around all of that for a while yet, and maybe I’ll do some thinking in writing later on, but I won’t say much about it now except to note that I’ll never look at the game of tennis, the neighborhood of Allston, or people in wheelchairs the same way again.

For my next book, I went on an internet and used book store binge, and stocked up on a few new things*. Normally, I get my books from the library or borrow them from friends (unless people are good enough to give them to me as gifts, as was the case with Infinite Jest), because I shun material possessions (we must not underestimate inanimate objects),but sometimes I see certain pressing deficiencies in myself and then develop vague ambitions to cure those deficiencies by means of buying a book** (because merely borrowing a book just doesn’t speak of real seriousness of purpose). So, here is a list:

Breakthrough Rapid Reading, by Peter Kump.◊ I am a pretty slow reader. I always have been. Until I went to grad school, this wasn’t really a big deal, but it’s since become more or less fatal. Spending a month and a half on Infinite Jest was bad, but it wasn’t atypical. If I want to have time for both scholarship and adventure, I need to accelerate. I am a little skeptical of speed reading–I have a suspicion that I might already be reading as fast as my brain can process the words, and so the real hindrance is less my reading skill than my inherent stupidity–but I figure I don’t have much to lose and I’d really like to be able to read like this guy. I picked Kump because he had the most positive reviews on amazon. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Must We Mean What We Say, by Stanley Cavell. Cavell always has amazing things to say about literally everything, and is one of my two favorite literary critics named Stanley. As an undergraduate I was at least nominally a philosophy minor, which means that I took classes on the Greeks, the 18th century rationalists, and the existentialists. It turns out, though, that the real action these days has more to do with guys like Heidegger and Wittgenstein and J.L. Austen–people who talk less about ideas, and more about the systems of language that make those ideas possible. I’m still working to get in on that action. Stanley will help. He will also, probably, take about two months to read.

Beyond Good & Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future (Walter Kaufmann translation). They actually spelled “and” as “&” in the title, and there is a stylized picture of a yin/yang type apple divided in twain, which I guess makes it look a little more hip and philosophy-of-the-futuristic. This is my speed reading practice book; I’m pretty sure the Übermensch can read really fast.

The Wine Bible, by Karen MacNeil. My friend C____ in New York just became a licensed sommelier. Long boozy talks to follow. This book is about 900 pages long, but I still feel like I should have paid more and bought the deluxe package–you know, the one that comes with samples.◊◊

*This blog is sometimes I think going to be an account of what I’m reading, which I acknowledge might not be the most fascinating subject. About a year ago, I created an account at goodreads.com, having always espoused the theory that what you read says a lot about who you are. I never used that account, never bothered to look at what any of my friends were reading, and was just generally bored by the entire thing. Maybe it was the lack of commentary that was bringing me down. In middle school, they gave us a gift certificate for a milkshake at Sammy’s Woodfired Pizza if you read like twenty books. Without that incentive, I feel like formal reading lists can get tedious.

**This  practice has served me well in the past. For instance, I wanted to learn to speak French, so I got one of those non-Rosetta Stone courses-in-a-book. Now I’ve moved on to Harry Potter Et Le Prisonnier D’Azkaban, and I’m making grand progress. I wanted to kick some ass on the LSAT, and so I ordered the Princeton Review prep book and a dozen practice tests, and now I’m on the fast track to success in the legal profession and, more immediately, potentially big bucks in the LSAT tutoring industry. Or, to get closer to the root of the method, consider the time when, twelve years old,  I asked my mom with complete innocence of intent “what is this sex thing I’ve heard so much about from my peers?” To which she responded “I’ll buy you a book.” The manual she procured had pastel pictures, and a title something like God’s Plan for Your Body, and although it was relatively short on technical details its fundamental lessons have withstood the test of time.

◊I feel like this last name must have some valuable use as a verb. Like maybe something vaguely onomatopoeic, ie. failing to properly execute an attempted leap and falling down. “I was trying to save time at the crossing, but I kumped into the creek instead.”

◊◊Note to self: create wine book that comes with samples. Why doesn’t this already exist?

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