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Sunday, April 11th, 2010

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9:58a
A beautifully written book ...
One of the downsides of much of the reading that I do, and especially in the reading that I recently have been doing, is that the writing involved is functional, pedestrian, and bland. Of course, one would hardly demand “high art” out of a book focused on the job search, but the lack of beautifully composed prose in most of these came into harsh light of late, light emanating from A. (Alfred) Alvarez's The Writer's Voice. This was one of those books that I had picked up via BN.com's after-after-after-holiday sale for two bucks, and was picked (as I've mentioned at length previously) more on the basis of ”oh, this sounds like it might be interesting” rather than any particular focused intent on the book or its author.

Alvarez “is a poet, novelist, literary critic, anthologist, and author of many highly praised books” (according to the dust jacket), but I'd never encountered him previously. The book is based on a series of lectures that he presented at the New York Public Library in 2002 on “Finding a Voice”, “Listening”, and “The Cult of Personality and the Myth of the Artist”.

Again, the main take-away that I had from this was the quality of the prose, and as I read through the book I marked various pages which held “choice nuggets” exemplifying this. Rather than trying to summarize the gist of the three lectures, I'll attempt to string together these quotes to give you some sense of why I found this so special.

Interestingly, the book starts with, and eventually returns to, psychoanalysis, with Alvarez comparing the writer's search for “their voice” with an individual's inner struggles. He spends a goodly amount of time looking at Sigmund Freud, who he notes to have been unusually artistic in his literary output.

{Speaking of Freud:}
The mystery, of course, is that of the unconscious – how things we don't know about ourselves soak through like rising damp, changing what we think we know and how we behave.
Obviously, there's the poet's voice coming through here … phrases of the caliber of “soak through like rising damp” somehow missed the page in those Social Media books I've been reading! He sets up the psychological argument, and then back-tracks into literature, analyzing the various modes of different eras.

{Regarding Shakespeare:}
In one form or another, linguistic ostentation is the fuel that drives the play {Love's Labors Lost} forward and all parties are equally immodest. The difference is one of tone and manners – the courtier versus the pendant, elegance and edge versus braggadocio and vacuous circumlocution.
And, who of us has not been guilty of “vacuous circumlocution” at one time or another (albeit not necessarily labeled as such at the time)? Alvarez works his way through the years until reaching the modern era, and comes up with some choice bits about the difference between poetry and prose:

{Discussing Plath:}
No matter how many times you rewrite prose or how easily it seems to read when you are done with it, prose is never quite finished. There is always a word ill-chosen or out of place, a repetition you missed, an adjective that could be cut, a comma that should have been a semicolon – something to set your teeth on edge when you reread it later in cold print. Poems don't work like that. They are as intricate as the giant locks on a bank vault: each one of the dozens of tumblers has to click into place before the door will swing open.
That is superb, and every writer whose works have found their way into “cold print” can certainly identity with the frustrations outlined in this passage. This is part of an interesting discussion of modes of writing poetry, that of the “carver” and the “modeler”, and how Sylvia Plath started out as one but, in her last tragic burst of creativity, became the latter.

In the “listening” section, Alvarez reaches out into other areas, including popular music. The focus here is that, for a writer to find his or her “voice”, there must be readers out there who have developed the ability to actually “listen”.

{Analyzing Cole Porter's “I Get A Kick Out of You”:}
The stunning final image opens the door, as it were, onto the stunning melody, yet the lines that lead up to it are curiously slack and low-key – a chatty recitative, a deliberately nonchalant meander towards revelation, as if the singer were clearing his throat before he bursts into song.
One wonders how long the author spent crafting the line “a deliberately nonchalant meander towards revelation” which strikes my ear the way some morsel of exquisite culinary skill would hit my palate! Again, finding a book that speaks this way, quite by happenstance, has proven a most appreciated treat (and respite from the “business books” that I now find myself frequently the recipient of).

In the final lecture, he turns to the idea of the writer/artist in society (and changing notions of this role over time), and comes up with some rather arch observations. The following particularly got my attention, as it so closely parallels both my technique for writing back when I was producing 250 poems a year, and the reasons that I had to quit writing.

{Arguing against D.H. Lawrence:}
I myself believe that this is the exact opposite of the truth: you don't shed your sicknesses, you dredge them up in writing and thereby make them readily available to you, so that you find yourself living them out. Nature, that is, always imitates art, usually in a sloppy and exaggerated way.
“You find yourself living them out”, which for me was a NLP-like feedback loop of dredged-up anguish, dread, and angst that (by the act of “materializing” them as words on paper) fed back into my psyche as the “real” reality.

Anybody who writes, or appreciates writing would get a lot from The Writer's Voice, as well as those with an interest in psychiatry, cultural trends, and the history of literature. I can't recall a book that I quite so enjoyed reading for well-crafted passages like those quoted here. I would highly recommend this to all and sundry!

Despite it getting into my hands via a clearance sale, this does seem to still be in print. It's part of the Norton Lecture series, so I suspect that it has an audience in the academic market. However, the new/used guys have "like new" copies for as little as 1¢ (plus shipping), which might be your best bet if you're not up for parting with the $21.95 cover price. Not that this isn't worth that (even for a fairly slim volume), of course. Highly recommended!


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10:35p
Your mileage may vary ...
Like my just-reviewed book by A. Alvarez, this was obtained via the $2 sale at BN.com, but this exhibits a different end result ... where I might not have purchased the other in a store (and missed its pleasures), I'm reasonably sure that, given the chance to flip through this, I would have been very unlikely to have picked it up. Now, this is not to say that Ethical Ambition: Living a Life of Meaning and Worth by Prof. Derrick Bell is not a good book, it certainly is that, it's just that it's based on realities sufficiently outside of my experience to require acts of contextual identification beyond what I'm in the habit of attempting.

Prof. Bell was the first Black member of the Harvard Law School faculty, has held various positions in the Justice Department, been very active with the NAACP, and been on the faculties of several universities. From just reading this book, one gets the impression that he developed his biggest notoriety from assorted protests involving his highly-visible professional positions, which led him to take unpaid leaves or quit what most would consider to be cushy much-to-be-maintained tenured situations in the name of some "issue" or another which he felt needed to be highlighted.

Obviously, the title "Ethical Ambition" comes from this, and on some level the book seems to be his putting his resume in the framework of doing what he felt needed to be done at these various points in his life. As much as I typically avoid "philosophy" books, this is one case where I had really hoped for a more abstracted work. Unfortunately (at least from the standpoint of my connecting with it), this is very much grounded in "the Black experience" and the "civil rights" movement ... cultural elements of which I am (at best) an outside observer.

The book is in six chapters, each dealing with a different area of ethical concern: "The Power In Passion", "Courage and Risk Taking", "Evolving Faith", "Advancing Relationships", "Ethical Inspiration", and "Humility's Wisdom". The book started out strongly enough, with the first two chapters being things easily generalized, but somewhat "fell off the table" after that.

Here's a snippet from the second chapter:

Courage is a decision you make to act in a way that works through your own fear for the greater good as opposed to pure self-interest. Courage means putting at risk your immediate self-interest for what you believe is right. The stakes don't have to be life and death, and the situation doesn't have to be dramatic. You could exercise courage in a conversation were the greatest risk you run is being yelled at, laughed at, or refused.
And, here's a bit from the fourth:

For some of us, it is easier to confront an angry boss or even a hostile crowd than it is to leave an exciting work project and do justice as a spouse and parent. Achieving balance in an ongoing challenge, but an absolutely necessary one, and one well worth the continuing effort it requires.
Again, this is not so much a philosophical book as it is a quasi-autobiography in which the author tries to frame certain issues and life challenges in relation to his experiences. Personally, I don't think he achieved a level of detaching the ethical theory implied in these chapters from the specifics of his own experience, or from the thrust of his career. In order to get some context, I did what I rarely do and peeked at some other reviews ... interestingly it seems that this books is required reading for 1st year law students at some schools (those I'd guess with strong "civil rights" programs) ... there seemed to be two themes of thought on this, unbridled enthusiasm from those of a progressive bent, and folks brushing this off as pure ego-inflation ("arrogance and vanity seeping off the pages") on Bell's part.

I'm certainly willing to cut Prof. Bell slack on having a self-focused book, but then the question becomes "what's the book for?", as it speaks of ethical situations grounded in rather narrow contexts, which he then struggles to make more universal statements about. The passages quoted above were extracted from text which dealt with very specific events. I,of course, have no idea how this came to print, but (from having been in the publishing biz) can imagine a tug-of-war between the author and his editors to make this more about "Living a Life of Meaning and Worth" than "my struggles with ethics and bad people who just don't get it" ("my struggles" could have made a snappy title, albeit causing certain problems in some foreign editions).

Anyway, I am very likely not the "key audience" for Ethical Ambition and how you'll like it will depend (I believe) on your politics and cultural milieu. Bell at least seems to try to make some universal statements about ethics, but does seem bogged down by both ego and mission. I certainly wouldn't recommend spending full cover price for this (it is out there undiscounted, no doubt for the academic market), but if it does sound like something you'd be interested in, the new/used guys on Amazon have "like new" copies for as little as a penny (four bucks with shipping). Definitely a "your mileage may vary" case.


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