On Books Men Must Read – Part 2

Here is part 2 of my reading project:

The Professional by W.C. Heinz

My good friend, Ben, is a skilled illustrator. He is often told by others that they wished they could draw. “You can,” Ben will reply. “You just have to practice.” If there is a lesson I would fully advocate taking from this novel, this is the lesson. To accomplish something, you will need to put in the time and effort to hone that craft.

Now, this novel celebrates the aesthetics of practice. It advocates a sharp, sparse, demure honing of craft: a professionalism that strips itself of extras. It singles out that which is needed for success, and it focuses on only those things; honing them to near perfection. Professionalism is doing the craft well, and doing it well the right way.

Sometimes, I am inclined to think this correct. Other times, I find it complete bullshit. In matters of sport, where I fall tends to correlate with who I am supporting. If my team plays beautiful and loses, well, at least they play the game correctly. If my team plays ugly but wins, well, it is about winning, right?

In the end, style doesn’t matter. Why? The upset. If style mattered, we wouldn’t want an upset.

Lesson for Men: You have to practice to get good. You have to get good to taste success. You get great to minimize the vagaries of luck. But, remember, you are never fated to win.

A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories by Flannery O’Connor

A couple weeks ago, at work, my coworkers and myself were discussing the youth of today (I work at a university). I was mentioning my general disdain for the “Kids these days are so… [insert negative characteristic]” when the following conversation ensued:

Director: “My friend always says ‘Don’t judge other people’s kids until your kids are dead.'”
Me: “Ha. I like that.” [Pause] “Your friend’s Catholic, isn’t she?”
Director: “Yup.”

That’s what it was like to read Flannery O’Connor. There are some great moments, and I could secularize a lot of what is expressed. However, O’Connor is unflinchingly transparent. I don’t mind a story that’s a parable; I just prefer the moral doesn’t punch me in the face again and again and again.

That being said, O’Connor has some great lines epitomized by the Misfit’s gem of a line from A Good Man is Hard to Find: “She would of been a good woman, if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

Lesson for Men: The minutiae of your life does not excuse you from being a decent person.

Other Thoughts:

-When I see a game where I don’t have a prior preference for either team, I tend to support the underdog. I think this is common. I like to consider this the quintessential example of Nietzsche’s slave morality.

-On the one hand, I can admire Doc’s dedication to honing Eddie into the greatest fighter of the day. Supposedly, that’s what he does. But Doc is called crusty for a reason. He complains that everything has changed such that no one recognizes that Eddie is truly the greatest fighter. Sorry, Doc, but the times have changed. You don’t recognize that Eddie is the greatest fighter for an era that no longer exists.

I will admit that I’m not one for nostalgia. I believe sport can be artistic, but I will always reject the notion that commercialism (or prima dona athletes or rule changes, or pick your poison) has ruined the game. They’ve simply changed the canvas upon which the art is displayed. There is still beauty. Stop pining for the past. Find the beauty now.

-Over all, O’Connor’s short stories were enjoyable; I just don’t think I was their intended audience.

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On That Literary Moment

You’re sitting alone–all your loved ones live far away or are out of town.

There’s something mindless on the TV doing little more than breaking silence.

The bottle of beer you opened is half-finished and getting warm because you just can’t be bothered to do much of anything.

You’ve slogged through pages of a bland story about members of a sport that sparks the mildest of interests.

Then, suddenly, it comes together and the author drops this bomb:

“The greatest sculptor in the world, working in marble, cannot add a thing. If it is not there, it is not there. No man makes it, and so no man is truly creative, but by subtraction from the whole he reveals it. That is the nearest man can come to creation, and that is why the great are afraid. Only they can see all of it, and they are afraid that, in their process of subtraction, they will not reveal the all of it, and what is hidden will remain hidden forever. They are even more afraid that, in the process, they will cut too far and destroy that much of it forever. That is the way in the making of all things, including the making of a fighter.”

Bam. It hits you. This is not a novel about boxing. Well, it is. But, it is also a musing on art, creation, and the frailties of human expression. You are so much better off for the realization, but mildly irritated that you let your beer get warm. Nothing pairs epiphany quite like a cold beer.

On “At the Mountains of Infinite Jest”

…or How I Write like David Foster Wallace and H.P. Lovecraft with Scientific Proof.

Robert Bruce, at 101 Books, recently posted about a website that will analyze a sample of your text and return a result on whom you write like. The bit of text I entered returned Daniel Defoe. Then Dan Brown. Then David Foster Wallace. So, I figured the analyzer would just randomly spit out a name. I entered the same sections of text again and got the same results.

Initial skepticism assuaged, this required systematizing. So, I grabbed 20 bits of text from this blog. I made sure to choose text from posts on a variety of topics. I made sure the text was free from quotes of others. After running the test 20 times, here are my results:

David Foster Wallace: 8
H.P. Lovecraft: 6
Daniel Defoe: 2
Dan Brown: 1
Edgar Allen Poe: 1
Steven King: 1
Cory Doctorow: 1

Trust me: I calibrated my differentials. My power levels are ideal. I’ve properly bayesed my priors. One-tail, two-tail, and all other tails are accounted for. This is bona fide statistical fact: I have a 70% correlated writing style with the combined forces of David Foster Wallace and H.P. Lovecraft.

The thing is, the analyzer doesn’t explain its process. Although I can safely say I write like these paragons of literature, I don’t actually know why. Nor do I know what my writing style is like. So, I turned to Wikipedia. Combining their forces and using the Themes sections from the authors’ Wikipedia pages (here and here), I can safely say my writing style is as follows:

I use jargon and self-generated vocabulary, long multi-clause sentences, and a lot of footnotes/endnotes. My complicated writing style allows me to more fully tackle important, human issues like religion, fate, inherited guilt, and how civilization is under threat.

Or

I write overly convoluted text that aspires to touch on some existential truths but quickly devolves into mildly racist horror.

I’ll leave that debate to the readers.

Other Thoughts:

* To be honest, I’ve never read David Foster Wallace and only a little bit of H.P. Lovecraft (though I do enjoy the H.P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast). For some reason, in admitting this, I feel like I’ve lost credibility for the social circles to which I want to belong. I cannot name you these social circles. Nor can I clarify exactly why they would want me to be knowledgeable on Wallace and Lovecraft. I’m just pretty sure I’m a less interesting person for having not read much of these authors.

* I would not have known to write “whom I write like” had Bruce not commented on it, himself. I’m willing to admit that.

On Books Men Must Read – Part 1

In line with all the great achievements of the greatest of men, here is part one of my reading project – years late and accomplishing a fraction of what I promised.

A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter

I’m glad I read this book in my 30s. However, the “moral of the story”, to my mind, is one best learned in one’s 20s. This is the paradox of the novel. The extra decade of living needed to understand that the story is about the narrator and not Dean is a decade you don’t want to lose.

Lesson for Men: Though sex may be acceptable as either a sport or a pastime, women are neither.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver

In high school, I worked at a pizza place. One night, I closed the restaurant with two of my co-workers, both female peers I found attractive. After work, they decided to drive out to the sand pits and get high.

Though a veritable teetotaler in high school, I was excited to join them. I had a bit of a crush on one girl; the second girl had a bit of a crush on me. Both were cool kids, generally.

We got in the van, drove out to the sand pits, and hung out. They got high; we listened to loud music and joked around. After an hour or so, they drove me home.

My experience of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love was like that evening. It was a good experience, in general, but I was left feeling like more should have happened and wondering if I missed out on something.

Lesson for Men: “Booze takes a lot of time and effort if you’re going to do a good job with it.” Raymond Carver said this before the rise of microbreweries and homebrewing. These days, enjoy with moderation.

***

Other Random Thoughts:

  • Salter’s prose is amazing. He just crafts amazing sentences.

This is what allows him to write rather explicit depictions of sex without ever crossing the line into pulp. I’m not even sure it can be considered erotica. His writing can get hot, but it remained literary without becoming titillating.

  • Truth be told, I suspect part of what I found lacking from Carver is more a reaction to reading Carver after Salter.

Carver’s style is sparse, minimalist. It is different than Salter’s sing-songiness (I’m not sure if ‘lyrical’ properly captures my experience of Salter). Had I read Carver first, or allowed more time between reading the two, I suspect I would have enjoyed him more.

  • Carver writes with a strong, male voice.

I both love and loath authors that can write in a strong male voice. It is easy to want to identify one’s masculinity with that of the character given a strong, male voice (in fact, I think a large number of the books suggested by Esquire are suggested because their authors can write with a strong, male voice).

The problem arises when the masculinity on display in the novel is misogynistic. Charles Bukowski, to my mind, is a good example of this. Read Women (on Esquire’s list). Bukowski is great with the everyman man’s man. But, my goodness, is he misogynistic.

Now, let me be clear, I’m not suggesting that misogynistic characters shouldn’t be written. I just worry, when they’re written well, do they seem more appealing than they should? I hope not, but I worry.

On the Books Men Must Read (Project Introduction)

This post is a revisiting of something I wrote on a previous blog.

I breached it, for the first time, in one of my previous posts. The topic of masculinity has been an interest of mine since my undergrad days. About a year ago, I set about the project of reading a collection of books described as “books every man must read.” I drew my list from two sources: Esquire and The Art of Manliness. With lists of 75 and 100, respectively, I had a veritable library to make my way through in the hopes of discovering their manly lessons.

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