Passages

"To Invent Your Own Life's Meaning"

Bill Watterson:

"You will find your own ethical dilemmas in all parts of your lives, both personal and professional. We all have different desires and needs, but if we don’t discover what we want from ourselves and what we stand for, we will live passively and unfulfilled. Sooner or later, we are all asked to compromise ourselves and the things we care about. We define ourselves by our actions. With each decision, we tell ourselves and the world who we are. Think about what you want out of this life, and recognize that there are many kinds of success." […]

"You’ll be told in a hundred ways, some subtle and some not, to keep climbing, and never be satisfied with where you are, who you are, and what you’re doing. There are a million ways to sell yourself out, and I guarantee you’ll hear about them.

"To invent your own life’s meaning is not easy, but it’s still allowed, and I think you’ll be happier for the trouble."

The Form of Funny

This bit by Chuck Klosterman, from an essay in Eating the Dinosaur, remains one of the sharpest and most valuable critiques of what's become a dominant style of writing online. When he wrote the essay, it made sense to address the problem as one belonging to blogs, but it's long since spread to mainstream publications, too:

"If you've spent any time trolling the blogosphere, you've probably noticed a peculiar literary trend: the pervasive habit of writers inexplicably placing exclamation points at the end of otherwise unremarkable sentences. Sort of like this! This is done to suggest an ironic detachment from the writing of an expository sentence! It's supposed to signify that the writer is self-aware! And this is idiotic. It's the saddest kind of failure. F. Scott Fitzgerald believed inserting exclamation points was the literary equivalent of an author laughing at his own jokes, but that's not the case in the modern age; now, the exclamation point signifies creative confusion. All it illustrates is that even the writer can't tell if what they're creating is supposed to be meaningful, frivolous, or cruel. It's an attempt to insert humor where none exists, on the off chance that a potential reader will only be pleased if they suspect they're being entertained. Of course, the reader isn't really sure, either. They just want to know when they're supposed to pretend to be amused. All those extraneous exclamation points are like little splatters of canned laughter: They represent the 'form of funny,' which is more easily understood (and more easily constructed) than authentic funniness."

Passages: The Pale King

From David Foster Wallace's unfinished, posthumously published novel. The rhythms catch my breath every time:

Past the flannel plains and the blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the a.m. heat: shattercane, lamb’s-quarter, cutgrass, sawbrier, nutgrass, jimsonweed, wild mint, dandelion, foxtail, muscatine, spinecabbage, goldenrod, creeping charlie, butter-print, nightshade, ragweed, wild oat, vetch, butcher grass, invaginate volunteer beans, all heads gently nodding in a morning breeze like a mother’s soft hand on your cheek. An arrow of starlings fired from the windbreak's thatch. The glitter of dew that stays where it is and steams all day. A sunflower, four more, one bowed, and horses in the distance standing rigid and still as toys. All nodding. Electric sounds of insects at their business. Ale-colored sunshine and pale sky and whorls of cirrus so high they cast no shadow. Insects all business all the time. Quartz and chert and schist and chondrite iron scabs in granite. Very old land. Look around you. The horizon trembling, shapeless. We are all of us brothers.

Passages: Feed

From M.T. Anderson's YA novel about a future in which commerce and relationships are driven by a chip in everyone's brain. It's a quick, sharp read, full of dark humor and incisive observation about the ease with which culture erodes:

Marty had also gotten a Nike speech tattoo, which was pretty brag. It meant that every sentence, he automatically said "Nike." He paid a lot for it. It was hilarious, because you could hardly understand what he said anymore. It was just, "This fuckin' shit Nike, fuckin', you know, Nike," etc.

Everything was not always going well, because for most people, our hair fell out and we were bald, and we had less and less skin. Then later there was this thing that hit hipsters. People were just stopping in their tracks frozen. At first, people thought it was another virus, and they were looking for groups like the Coalition of Pity, but it turned out that it was something called Nostalgia Feedback. People had been getting nostalgia for fashions that were closer and closer to their own time, until finally people became nostalgic for the moment they were actually living in, and the feedback completely froze them. It happened to Calista and Loga. We were real worried about them for a day or so. We knew they'd be all right, but still, you know. Marty was like, "Holy fuckin' shit, this is so Nike fucked."

Passages: City of Thieves

From David Benioff's wonderful novel, his second. It's an arresting, funny, heartbreaking story about two young men on a journey through Leningrad during the siege:

Someone inside the old building was playing the piano. I couldn't see any lights through the windows, no candles or lamps burning. The other residents must have gone down to the basement shelter (unless they were too weak from hunger or too old to care), leaving behind this stray genius to play in the darkness, impudent and precise, showing off with thundering double fortissimos immediately followed by fragile little pianissimos, as if he were having an argument with himself, the bullying husband and the meek wife all at once.

Music was an important part of my childhood, on the radio and in the concert halls. My parents were fanatic in their passion; we were a family with no talent for playing but great pride in our listening. I could identify any of Chopin's twenty-seven etudes after hearing a few bars; I knew all of Mahler, from Lieder eines fahrdenden Gesellen to the unfinished Tenth. But the music we heard that night I have never heard before and have never heard since. The notes were muffled by window glass and distance and the unending wind, but the power came through. It was music for wartime.

We stood on the sidewalk, beneath a powerless streetlamp cobwebbed with hoarfrost, the great guns firing to the south, the moon veiled by muslin clouds, listening until the final note. When it ended, something seemed wrong: the performance was too good to go unacknowledged, the performer to skilled to accept no applause. For a long moment we were silent, staring up at the dark windows. Finally, when it seemed respectful to move again, we resumed our march.

Passages: High Fidelity

From Nick Hornby's rightly loved examination of life, love, and the way they're defined by pop culture:

A while back, when Dick and Barry and I agreed that what really matters is what you like, not what you are like, Barry proposed the idea of a questionnaire: for prospective partners, a two- or three-page multiple-choice document that covered all the music/film/TV/book bases. It was intended a) to dispense with awkward conversation, and b) to prevent a chap from leaping into bed with someone who might, at a later date, turn out to have every Julio Iglesias record ever made. It amused us at the time, although Barry, being Barry, went one stage further: he compiled the questionnaire and presented it to some poor woman he was interested in, and she hit him with it. But there was an important and essential truth contained in the idea, and the truth was that these things matter, and it's no good pretending any relationship has a future if your record collections disagree violently, or if your favorite films wouldn't even speak to each other if they met at a party.

Passages: A People's History of the United States

From Howard Zinn's fascinating look at American history through the eyes of the conquered, the oppressed, and the disenfranchised:

Around 1776, certain important people in the English colonies made a discovery that would prove enormously useful for the next two hundred years. They found that by creating a nation, a symbol, a legal unity called the United States, they could take over land, profits, and political power from favorites of the British Empire. In the process, they could hold back a number of potential rebellions and create a consensus of popular support for the role of a new, privileged leadership.

When we look at the American Revolution this way, it was a work of genius, and the Founding Fathers deserve the awed tribute they have received over the centuries. They created the most effective system of national control devised in modern times, and showed future generations of leaders the advantages of combining paternalism with command.

Independence Day isn't just a time to remember where the nation has been, but to proudly know we can do better. The Founding Fathers spoke with lofty phrases about equality, even as they considered those men and women who look like the current president to be worth 3/5 of a white man, and that they and white women weren't allowed to vote. July 4th is a day to realize just how far we've come and how far we will always need to go, not to wish we were still back there.

Passages: Look Homeward, Angel

From Thomas Wolfe, written when he was young enough to be shamelessly poetic but old enough to know that nothing lasts. Look Homeward, Angel is a spectacular coming-of-age story that constantly returns to Wolfe's theme of unstoppable loss in the face of a world that refuses to do anything but move on — the word "ghost" appears dozens of times in the text — and it's worth your time. The passage is wonderful for the way it captures how the protagonist felt in his youth and how the author knows things will really turn out:

They clung together in that bright moment of wonder, there on the magic island, where the world was quiet, believing all they said. And who shall say — whatever disenchantment follows — that we ever forget magic, or that we can ever betray, on this leaden earth, the apple-tree, the singing, and the gold? Far out beyond that timeless valley, a train, on the rails for the East, wailed back its ghostly cry: life, like a fume of painted smoke, a broken wrack of cloud, drifted away. Their world was a singing voice again: they were young and they could never die. This would endure.

Passages: "Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley"

From David Foster Wallace's essay about growing up playing tennis in the Midwest (available here online and as part of the fantastic collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again). He writes about being a lazy but occasionally inspired player thanks to his love of math, and it's a nerdily detailed and completely entertaining read:

When I left my boxed township of Illinois farmland to attend my dad's alma mater in the lurid jutting Berkshires of western Massachusetts, I all of a sudden developed a jones for mathematics. I'm starting to see why this was so. College math evokes and catharts a Midwesterner's sickness for home. I'd grown up inside vectors, lines and lines athwart lines, grids — and, on the scale of horizons, broad curving lines of geographic force, the weird topographical drain-swirl of a whole lot of ice-ironed land that sits and spins atop plates. The area behind and below these broad curves at the seam of land and sky I could plot by eye way before I came to know infinitesimals as easements, an integral as schema. Math at a hilly Eastern school was like waking up; it dismantled memory and put it in light. Calculus was, quite literally, child's play.

Also:

Tennis-wise, I had two preternatural gifts to compensate for not much physical talent. Make that three. The first was that I always sweated so much that I stayed fairly ventilated in all weathers. Oversweating seems an ambivalent blessing, and it didn't exactly do wonders for my social life in high school, but it meant I could play for hours on a Turkish-bath July day and not flag a bit so long as I drank water and ate salty stuff between matches. I always looked like a drowned man by about game four, but I didn't cramp, vomit, or pass out, unlike the gleaming Peoria kids whose hair never even lost its part right up until their eyes rolled up in their heads and they pitched forward onto the shimmering concrete. A bigger asset still was that I was extremely comfortable inside straight lines. None of the odd geometric claustrophobia that turns some gifted juniors into skittish zoo animals after a while. I found I felt best physically enwebbed in sharp angles, acute bisections, shaved corners. This was environmental. Philo, Illinois, is a cockeyed grid: nine north-south streets against six northeast-southwest, fifty-one gorgeous slanted-cruciform corners (the east and west intersection-angles' tangents could be evaluated integrally in terms of their secants!) around a three-intersection central town common with a tank whose nozzle pointed northwest at Urbana, plus a frozen native son, felled on the Salerno beachhead, whose bronze hand pointed true north. In the late morning, the Salerno guy's statue had a squat black shadow-arm against grass dense enough to putt on; in the evening the sun galvanized his left profile and cast his arm's accusing shadow out to the right, bent at the angle of a stick in a pond. At college it suddenly occurred to me during a quiz that the differential between the direction the statue's hand pointed and the arc of its shadow's rotation was first-order. Anyway, most of my memories of childhood — whether of furrowed acreage, or of a harvester's sentry duty along RR104W, or of the play of sharp shadows against the Legion Hall softball field's dusk — I could now reconstruct on demand with an edge and protractor.

Passages: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

From Michael Chabon's Pulitzer-winning, heartbreaking, flat-out brilliant novel:

As they made their way through the increasing gloom, Joe seemed to steer only according to the light shed by the action of her palm against his wrist, by the low steady flow of voltage through the conducting medium of their sweat. He stumbled like a drunken man and laughed as she hurried him along. He was vaguely aware of the ache in his hand, but he ignored it. As they turned the landing to the top floor, a strand of her hair caught in the corner of his mouth, and for an instant he crunched it between his teeth.

Passages: How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken

I've been meaning to cook up a section on this here blog-type thing that would allow me to share worthwhile sections of books I'm reading or past favorites. (John has a great section that does this as well.) I figure the new year is as good a time as any to get this going, and I hope to regularly offer interesting passages and receive book suggestions in return. Anyway, to kick things off, here's Daniel Mendelsohn from in the introduction of How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken, his collection of essays and criticisms. The phrase is from Tennessee Williams, and Mendelsohn is writing about why it struck a chord with him:

But to my mind Williams's haunting phrase illuminates not only the nature of certain works that have preoccupied me, but also something about the nature of the critics who judge these works. For (strange as it may sound to many people, who tend to think of critics as being motivated by the lower emotions: envy, disdain, contempt even) critics are, above all, people who are in love with beautiful things, and who worry that those things will get broken. What motivates so many of us to write in the first place is, to begin with, a great passion for a subject (Tennessee Williams, Balanchine, jazz, the twentieth-century novel, whatever) that we find beautiful; and, then, a kind of corresponding anxiety about the fragility of that beauty.