The Gene

An Intimate History

By Siddhartha Mukherjee

How can I have so little to say about such a big book? More importantly, how can I have so little to say about a good book?

Siddhartha Mukherjee became book-famous a few years ago, with the publication of his magisterial history of cancer, ‘The Emperor of All Maladies‘.  ‘The Gene‘ is his follow-up, a magisterial history of the gene (i.e. the basic unit of inheritance).

And it is reasonable to ask at this point: is everything that Mukherjee writes magisterial?  ‘The Emperor of All Maladies‘ and ‘The Gene‘ have a lot in common: they are dense, comprehensive histories of science.  Nevertheless, they are also popular histories, written for non-scientists.  They are, despite their length, approachable works, framed by personal anecdote and driven by emotional concerns.

In fact, the entire framing of ‘The Gene‘ is personal. Mental illness runs with high prevalence through Mukherjee’s father’s family, and it is through the lens of this terrible heritability the Mukherjee first spies the gene itself:

“By then, heredity, illness, normalcy, family, and identity had become recurrent themes of conversation in my family. Like most Bengalis, my parents had elevated repression and denial to an art form, but even so, questions about this particular history were unavoidable. Moni; Rajesh; Jagu: three lives consumed by variants of mental illness. It was hard not to imagine that a hereditary component lurked behind this family history. Had Moni inherited a gene, or a set of genes, that had made him susceptible – the same genes that had affected our uncles? Had others been affected with different variants of mental illness? My father had had a least two psychotic fugues in his life…Were these related to the same scar of history?” (p. 7)

Mukherjee has a knack for picking interesting science. The genetic basis of inheritance is one of the most interesting and important fields in all of science, and its scientific history is a tangle of elegant experiments and moral dilemmas. And cancer is, I think most people would agree, the most important medical problem of our age, as well as one of the most complicated and intractable.

Mukherjee is a doctor, and he writes like one. I mean that as a compliment (sort of).  He is human-facing: he cares about patients.  Though the topics of both ‘The Emperor of All Maladies‘ and ‘The Gene‘ fall within the realm of molecular biology, Mukherjee is essentially the writing about people: the scientists who study the topic, the patients who suffer because of the topic, the doctors who treat the topic.

This is, from my point of view, the great strength and the great weakness of both of Mukherjee’s books: they are human histories of scientific topics.  And, as someone who does science for a living, I have complicated feelings about that.

I love science, particularly biology, which is the research area in which I work.  I do not feel, personally, that science needs to wear a human face to be interesting, or lovable.  For those of us who live in genetics, the magic is in the science itself.

This is not necessarily true for most people, and I understand that. Most people are drawn in by human stories; they have trouble relating to plain science, or find it boring. Popular science exists, as a category, because most people are alienated by textbooks – they need to understand the stakes, and the context, of hard science, before they are able to muster the energy to care about it.

The Structure of DNA – the figure from Watson and Crick’s second paper

But the profound and breathtakingly beautiful thing about science is that it exists completely independent of our stakes, of our context, and of our feelings. Reading ‘The Gene‘, one has the sense that the science of genetics is the science of human genetics, that the machinery of inheritance exists to disrupt and inform our lives, and that its history is the history of its discovery by us.

This doesn’t trouble me for complicated policy reasons (“this emphasis on medicine as a lens for a biology hurts funding for basic research”), although those reasons abide. But when we teach people science through this lens, we teach them to care about science when it affects them, or someone they love. We do not teach them to love genetics for its own sake, for the majesty of its complexity, the careful tickings of molecular machines which happen in and around us at all times, whether we know them or not. Most of which we haven’t even imagined yet. Most of which we will not learn in my lifetime, or yours.

OK, but maybe that is an unreasonable ask. The truth is, most people don’t care about the incredible ballet of mitosis for its own sake – they care about cancer, because it might kill them. Because it has killed someone they love, and there are only so many things that we can care about in a natural lifespan and, for most of us, we ourselves are the most interesting thing around.

And, OK, if that is the case, if a 700 page human history of genetics will interest where a 700 page molecular biology textbook never, ever will, I would rather live in a world with the human history than not.

Siddhartha Mukherjee

But I don’t have much to say about that 700 page history itself. It is scientifically competent, but not, for me, scientifically revelatory. I learned some history I did not know (and I am always happy to do so), but I learned absolutely no science which a normal college biology major would not know already.

It’s always annoying when professionals complain about pop-science books, whining that subtleties were missed or the topic wasn’t covered in enough depth. It makes you want to howl at them to shut up, that the book wasn’t written for them in the first place! I know that I am not the intended audience for ‘The Gene‘, and I want to be clear: the fact that I didn’t learn anything is not because ‘The Gene’ has nothing to teach you. It is an exceptionally information-rich book; it just happened to be information I already had.

The Gene‘ is actually probably a pretty great book (as was ‘The Emperor of All Maladies‘). ‘The Gene’ reminded me of how much I love genetics, how grand and moving I find the machinery of inheritance. To spend 700 pages reading about something I care so much about, how can I really complain? I wish I could do better for Mukherjee, I wish I had something profound to say about him, but I don’t. All I can say is, no matter how the science is framed, getting to spend 700 pages in the company of biology is always a treat.

How To Become A Scandal

Adventures in Bad Behavior

By Laura Kipnis

All Posts Contain Spoilers

I love mean people.

I mention that only because I try, before I talk about a book, to give all relevant disclaimers, to announce any prejudices which may skew my otherwise pristine critical faculties.  And, before I discuss ‘How to Become a Scandal‘, I need to disclaim: I love mean people. I am predisposed to enjoy them, to enjoy the things that they say, especially if they are mean AND funny.

Laura Kipnis is mean.  And Laura Kipnis is funny.  Laura Kipnis is mean AND funny.

How to Become a Scandal‘ is an ontology of modern American scandals.  Kipnis discusses only four scandals, but she discusses them in depth: Lisa Nowak, the jilted astronaut who drove through the night to pepper spray the woman for whom her boyfriend left her; Sol Wachtler, the appellate judge who created several fake identities in order to harass and extort the woman with whom he’d had an extramarital affair; Linda Tripp, the “friend” who secretly taped Monika Lewinsky talking about her affair with Bill Clinton; and James Frey, the “memoirist” who was found to have fabricated many of the most interesting details of his book, ‘A Million Little Pieces’.

Kipnis reviews these scandals, reminding (or educating us) about the most important details of the cases, but she’s really interested in understanding them: why did these people behave in such outrageous and self-destructive ways?  How do they understand their own actions?  And why, in a world full of bad actors, do we find ourselves outraged only by some?  What allows some bad behavior to fly under the radar while some catches fire in our imagination and becomes a scandal?  And are we wicked to enjoy it?

I think I can admit that I enjoyed ‘How to Become a Scandal‘ thoroughly.  It feels like an admission because Kipnis is prurient and salacious and, well, mean: she loves scandals, all the grubby little details which we are supposed to pretend aren’t interesting to us.  She cops to participating in the worst of our cultural rubbernecking, of gloating about the misfortunes of others, of reveling in the sick and sexy revelations which so often accompany these tempests.  As I began the book, I was worried that I was basically going to be reading a gossip column dressed up in a little cultural analysis.

I gave Kipnis too little credit.  First of all, she’s smart.  She’s really quite smart, actually, and her analysis is motivated by a genuine desire to understand.  Her gaze is unflinching, and she spares no one, not even herself: she is much more interested in what scandals say about the people who follow them than about the people who cause them.

And I think her analysis is fruitful: I learned things from this book, not facts, but new ways of thinking about my culture, about its winners and its losers.  She has altered my perspective, slightly perhaps, but I am old and jaded, and it takes a lot to move my needle even a little.

“Yes, I understand these people have done bad things, injured those who love them and torpedoed their lives in lavishly stupid ways, but clearly such impulses aren’t their problem alone.  It’s the universal ailment if, as appears to be the case, beneath the thin camouflage of social niceties lies a raging maelstrom, some unspeakable inner bedlam.  Scandals are like an anti-civics lesson – there to remind us of that smidge of ungovernability lodged deep at the human core which periodically breaks loose and throws everything into havoc, leading to grisly forms of ritual humiliation and social ignominy…” (p. 6)

She’s actually a pretty good writer, too.  She manages to parse some pretty subtle social theory, and be funny while doing it, which is not an easy feat.  And while her colloquialisms grate a little, and her prose tends towards the frenetic, she manages to be readable without sacrificing IQ points, which is a rare quality in a popular writer.

“We know the sentiments are mass produced, we also know the emotions we need to sustain us can’t be packaged, yet with the Oprahfication of the culture, triteness is our fate: it saturates the culture and our lives.  What’s at issue isn’t the market or mass media, neither of which appear to be going away any time soon, it’s the flattening out of experience and the vacancies it leaves all of us to manage, each in our own improvised ways.  If every scandal exposes underlying social contradictions, the commerce in selfhood is the subtext of this one.  The question we’d want to ask is whether her talent at monetizing authenticity really gives Oprah the moral high ground over James Frey.” (p. 189)

Or how about this excerpt, which is so sharp that everyone gets cut in it:

“Poor Linda [Tripp], so perilously poised at the intersection of two indelible forms of social failure.  Guilty of terribly betraying a friend, an egregious act in a culture that reviles a stool pigeon as the lowest of the low, and lacking the requisite allure in the visual department, she was the bearer of two varieties of social disgrace, each refracted through the magnifying lens of the other.  No doubt the combination licensed the barely repressed violence of the jokes, the quality of atavistic aggression, every punch line like  a hard right cross to the kisser.  Though you couldn’t help noting that physical attractiveness on the part of the tellers of ugliness jokes was not a prerequisite, which is curious in itself: did the jokesters think they were granted an exception from their own aesthetic standards by virtue of Tripp’s moral failures, or were somehow inoculated from similar judgements by the power of their jokes?” (p. 131)

The above quote also illustrates the other thing, mentioned previous, which I really loved about Kipnis: her meanness.

Laura Kipnis

That might sound weird, but I believe that I can defend meanness.  The truth is, there are some topics that we cannot discuss without it.  I am not advocating for gratuitous or sadistic meanness, for the taking of genuine pleasure in the suffering of another.  I am advocating for the willingness to say, to speak aloud, truths or conclusions about our fellow men which would wound them if they were heard, which we would not normally utter in polite conversation, which we would not say to our friends.  It is impossible to explain ugly things without speaking ugly truths, and as long as there are ugly things in the world, meanness will be a necessity of understanding.

The case of Linda Tripp is a perfect case in point: Kipnis makes a persuasive argument that the public outcry about Linda Tripp, the reaction to her, her scandal, cannot be understood without also acknowledging her personal ugliness.  That the nation recoiled in disgust at what they perceived as a creature without redeeming characteristics, either moral or aesthetic.  She is not justifying that reaction – she is chronicling it.  But, if scandal is the phenomenon of public outrage, and the public is outraged by ugly women (and there are mountains and mountains of rather soul-shriveling evidence that they are), then any discussion of the public’s reaction to Linda Tripp which pussy-foots around her ugliness is disingenuous at best.

I think, at the end of the day, that is why I enjoyed ‘How to Become a Scandal‘ so much, why I will almost certainly now read her other books: because she is brave.  She’s smart, and mean, and funny, yeah, but she uses those qualities in the service of her goal, which is to understand something ugly about us.  And I always believe that looking ugliness in the eye is a valid goal.

And, at least in my case, she achieved that goal.  I admire books which are sneaky about their smarts, books which you think are going to salacious and gossipy, but which actually make you wiser before you even notice it’s happening.  Laura Kipnis has hidden her acuity well – the dust jacket of her book is hot pink, for heaven’s sake! But it’s there, deep and sharp.  And I believe that it takes a mean, sharp analysis to understand what it is mean and sharp in us, to understand things like our bloodlust, our endless capacity to enjoy seeing each other brought low.  I think it needed someone like Kipnis to understand something like scandal.  And I loved it.

The Information

A History, A Theory, A Flood

By James Gleick

Have you ever been in love with humanity when you began in a book, and in complete emotional flight from it by the time you finished?  Impressed in the beginning, overwhelmed by the end?  Awed, in the beginning: proud of what we have accomplished, by what we have learned; numbed and overcome, flooded and drowned, by the end?

The InformationBy the time I finished ‘The Information‘ by James Gleick, I was ready to abandon civilization, get back to the land.  To buy a shack somewhere in the middle of godforsaken nowhere, somewhere with no internet, no phone, no television, and never look back, never learn anything new, participate no longer in human progress.

The Information‘ is a history of the human relationship to information.  How we’ve understood it, categorized it, encoded it, compressed it, measured it.  How it has changed us, changed our thinking, our societies.  Ways you didn’t even think that it might have.

Gleick is a science writer, and ‘The Information‘ is about science, specifically about the science of information.  He takes his readers through African talking drums, the invention of writing, the printing press, the inventions of formal logic, the printing press, information theory, the telegraph, the telephone, the OED, the computer, and Wikipedia (to name a few).  He explains the basic mathematical concepts which allowed these advances, and shows the rapid acceleration, over historical time, of our ability to generate, store, send, and process information.

There is a wealth of neat stuff (for lack of a more precise, technical description) in this book: cool facts, good explanations, illuminating connections drawn between different people, ideas, technologies.  I love scientific histories, as a rule: I think it makes it easier to remember how a discovery works if you can embed it in its context.  The best scientific histories give science a human texture; they make it lovable.

For example, you may never master the language of Boolean algebra:

(x(P(x)→ ¬Q(x)) andx(¬Q(x)S(x)))(x(P(x)S(x)))

but who could help but love Lewis Carroll’s famous formulation of the same syllogism:

    1. Babies are illogical;
    2. Nobody is despised who can manage a crocodile;
    3. Illogical persons are despised.

Conclusion: Babies cannot manage crocodiles.

Or, you may not think you care about what Einstein thought about quantum entanglement, but how can you be anything less than delighted to learn that, upon the publication of Einstein’s 1935 paper, ‘Can Quantum-Mechanical Description of Physical Reality Be Considered Complete?”, Wolfgang Pauli wrote to Werner Heisenberg, “Einstein has once again expressed himself publicly on quantum mechanics…As is well known, this is a catastrophe every time it happens.” (p. 366)

James Gleick
James Gleick

If this all sounds like a Nerd Alert to you, you are not wrong.  This is a book about science, and data, and math, and about the men and women who devoted their lives to understanding how those things work, to making incremental improvements to how we organize and retrieve information.  If you aren’t excited about how Turing machines worked, or what the difference is between a bit and byte, about whether or not Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem was correct or not (or whether or not it had anything to do with Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Theory), then this probably isn’t your bag.

But it’s my bag, for sure.  Or, at least I thought it was, but honestly, I’m feeling a little overwhelmed.

This isn’t the fault of the book, or of the author, but of humanity.  ‘The Information‘ is well-written, beautifully presented, thorough and approachable.  It’s interesting, gripping even, clear (for the most part).  It’s a very, very good book.

But it has filled me with despair.  There is so much that I don’t know, that I will never know.  Even today, the amount of information available to me could not be mastered in a thousand lifetimes, and those are just the things I would wish to learn.  And information is being produced at a rate which is unprecedented in human history: unprecedented and accelerating.

“As of 1972 businesses could lease high-speed lines carrying data as fast as 240 kilobits per second. Following the lead of IBM, whose hardware typically processed information in chunks of eight bits, engineers soon adopted the modern and slightly whimsical unit, the byte. Bits and bytes. A kilobyte, then, represented 8,000 bits; a megabyte (following hard upon), 8 million. In the order of things as worked out by international standards committees, mega- led to giga-, tera-, peta-, and exa-, drawn from Greek, though with less and less linguistic fidelity. That was enough, for everything measured, until 1991, when the need was seen for the zettabyte (1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000) and the inadvertently comic-sounding yottabyte (1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000). In this climb up the exponential ladder, information left other gauges behind. Money, for example, is scarce by comparison.  After kilobucks, there were megabucks and gigabucks, and people can joke about inflation leading to terabucks, but all the wealth amassed 
by all the generations of humanity does not amount to a petabuck.” (p. 394)

I have come to the end of ‘The Information‘ feeling demoralized by my own mortal lifespan, my ignorance, my faulty memory and my lack of math prodigy.  I will not know all that there is to know; I will not know any minute fraction of what there is to know; I will not even master the subjects which matter to me.  I will not master anything, because knowledge is being produced too fast to allow mastery of anything for very long (and because I am a dilettante).

And if I am not master of my subject, how will I know truth from fiction?  How will I distinguish good information from bad?  Gleick deals with this problem explicitly, and his conclusion is not comforting to me.  Because ‘information’ is not the same as ‘truth’; ‘content’ is not the same thing as ‘veracity’.

“Still, who could love a theory that gives false statements as much value as true statements (at least, in terms of quantity of information)?  It was mechanistic.  It was desiccated.  A pessimist, looking backward, might call it a harbinger of a soulless internet at its worst.  “The more we ‘communicate’ the way we do, the more we create a hellish world,” wrote the Parisian philosopher – also a historian of cybernetics – Jean-Pierre Dupuy.

“I take “hell” in its theological sense, i.e., a place which is void of grace – the undeserved, unnecessary, surprising, unforeseen.  A paradox is at work here: ours is a world about which we pretend to have more and more information but which seems to us increasingly devoid of meaning.”

That hellish world, devoid of grace – has it arrived?  A world of information glut and gluttony; of bent mirrors and counterfeit texts; scurrilous blogs, anonymous bigotry, banal messaging.  Incessant chatter.  The false driving out the true.” (p. 418)

Gleick does not believe so.  He sees a different world (one begins to suspect that he does not watch the news); his relationship to information is hopeful: “Infinite possibility is good, not bad.  Meaningless disorder is to be challenged, not feared.  Language maps a boundless world of objects and sensations and combinations onto a finite space…We can be overwhelmed or we can be emboldened.” (p. 419)

And I’m very happy for him, but this Sisyphean message has undone me utterly: it is very rare that I am so impressed by a book and yet so depressed by it.  Smarter, yes, but more acutely aware of how little I know, how little I will ever know.

Bad Blood

Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup

By John Carreyrou

All Posts Contain Spoilers

I imagine that one of the drawbacks of being a journalist that is that, in real life, villains are thin on the ground.

Bad BloodWriters of fiction can conjure a villain whenever they want, and drape him in the accoutrement of evil.  He can wear a poisoner’s ring; his literal fangs can drip literal blood; flowers can wilt at his approach – no problem at all for a writer of fiction.

But journalists are, at least hypothetically, bounded by truth, and the truth is: most humans are not villains.  None are perfect, most are complicated, many are bad, but very, very few are truly wicked.

There are exceptions, of course.  Every once and a while, a thorough-going monster hoves into view, and a lucky journalist discovers it.  I can only imagine that those discoveries are the journalistic scoops of a lifetime, the exposure of a real-life Iago in our midst.

Which makes me suspect that John Carreyrou must have just about shit a brick when he realized that he had discovered one.  He seems like a Very Serious Journalist, so I’m sure he was super professional about it, but I’ll bet that, in his secret heart of hearts, when he realized what it was that he had found, he did little, private journalistic leaps for joy.

Because he found a genuine villain.  A real one.  He discovered a villain, and he discovered her when everyone else thought that she was hot stuff.  He exposed her.

I remember when the Wall Street Journal published their first Theranos exposé.  It was the first I had heard of Theranos, but I remember thinking that the description of the technology sounded…optimistic.  I remember wondering about Elizabeth Holmes, about whether, if the Wall Street Journal allegations were true, she had known.  CEOs often do not know about the specific actions of their scientific staff, I knew.  Perhaps she had been ignorant.

She was not.

Elizabeth Holmes
Elizabeth Holmes

Bad Blood‘ is the story of Elizabeth Holmes and the company that she founded, Theranos.  Theranos’ mission statement was simple: comprehensive, rapid blood-testing from finger-pricks, rather than intravenous blood-draws.  Holmes had a fear of needles, as she famously explained during pitches, and she wanted to spare patients the stress of them.  She wanted to make blood-drawing so quick, so painless, that no one ever lost a loved one to a condition which might have been caught by a blood test.

At no point during its existence did Theranos possess the technology to do this.  However, their lack did not stop Holmes from promising her investors that they did, from producing prototypes, from entering into partnerships with pharmaceutical companies, and from testing on patients.  At its peak, Theranos was valued at over $50 billion, and was running tests in Walgreens on actual humans.

I’m not sure quite how to express how convincing, unrelenting, and shocking ‘Bad Blood‘ is.  Even for a cynical person (which I am), the amount of bad faith, of systematic dishonesty, displayed by Holmes and her vice-president (and boyfriend) Sunny Balwani, was enormous.

And, what’s worse, when their employees called them on it, told them that their machines couldn’t meet quality controls, or that their results couldn’t be replicated, weren’t matching the control samples, they fired those employees, threatened them with lawsuits, and even, in some cases, blackmailed them.

Perhaps you find it slightly incredible that a book about what is, essentially, a medical device company lying about the precision of blood tests would be fascinating.  But fascinating isn’t even an adequate term – this is a page-turner.  ‘Page-turner’ is an over-used term, so I would like to take just a second to explore what that term is actually supposed to mean, to explain how I am using it.

A page-turner is a book which demands that you turn its pages.  Some books you move in and out of at leisure, it is up to you whether you are reading them or not.  You may love them, and appreciate them very much, but they don’t call to you when they’re closed.

John Carreyrou
John Carreyrou

But some books are not up to you.  Some books require a sort of devil’s bargain: once you start them, they own you until you finish them.  They shout at you when you’re not with them, and you move through your life with half your mind, because the other half of your mind is forever grasping back to where you left the book.

That’s what ‘page-turner’ means – it means that it isn’t up to you who turns the pages.  And ‘Bad Blood‘ is a page-turner by that definition.

(And a contagion – I read it when a friend from my old lab at MIT told me that she had read it in one sitting, when she insisted that I read it.  I read it in one sitting on a train to visit my parents – when I disembarked, I told my mother about it, and she then spent that evening reading late into the night.  She had finished it when I woke up the next morning.  I have given it to at least three people since.)

I should be clear: partly, ‘Bad Blood‘ is so absorbing because it isn’t really a book, not in the artistic sense of the word.  It’s a case for the prosecution.  Carreyrou is a good journalistic writer; his prose conveys information without getting in the way.  His meticulousness shines through the words – he is totally convincing.  He is also, I think, furious (the last section of the book details Holmes’ attempt to destroy him personally), and that also shines through the words.  But, in this case, words and personality don’t equal literature – they equal a plot, a gripping story, one of those rare books which is more like a movie than printed word.

And, because I believe that it is true, I recommend it highly.  These examples of far-out villainy, they are rare in real life.  We are lucky in that.  But, it is rarer still that they are so well-documented, so thoroughly illuminated and detailed.  And we are even luckier in that, when it happens.  Because, rare though they are, they are real, and it’s worth taking a real hard look at them, every once and a while.

Cannibalism

A Perfectly Natural History

By Bill Schutt

When you were a kid, did you ever feel as though you belonged to a completely different species than everyone around you?  As though you were totally alien, a tiny island of strangeness in a vast sea of normality?  That there was no one like you, no one who would ever understand why you liked the things that you liked, dressed the way the you did, wanted the things you wanted?

I did.  When I was a kid, I was pretty sure that I was the weirdest person on the planet, humanity’s outlier, doomed never to do the right things and never to have companions in my own, odd interests.

CannibalismI was wrong, though.  There are other weirdos like me, and I can tell because otherwise there would be no market for books like ‘Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History‘.

Some books are about exactly what you think they’re about. ‘Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History‘ is both a history, and a natural history, of cannibalism.  It describes the circumstances in the animal kingdom in which cannibalism reliably occurs (in what species, in what conditions).  What animals eat their own young, and why?  What animals eat other peoples’ young, and why?  What animals eat other adults, and why?

And it’s a history of human cannibalism.  Schutt, on principle, doesn’t spend time on so-called Cannibal Killers, like Jeffrey Dahmer, aberrant individuals who happened to eat other people.  Instead, he is interested in institutions of cannibalism in human society, either rituals in which humans construct meaning around the eating of other humans, or circumstances in which humans semi-reliably eat other humans (like mass starvations).

He does spend a chapter on the Donner Party, the incident of human cannibalism with which most of his readership will be familiar.  But he also devotes a chapter to, for example, the practice of placenta-eating, which he describes (defensibly) as cannibalism.

I can see already that I am going to have difficulty describing how happy it makes me that this book exists.  ‘Cannibalism‘ isn’t literature, for sure, and it probably won’t go down as one of the all-time most beautifully written scientific texts.  But it’s an entire book about cannibalism!  It’s 300 pages of well-articulated information about the myths and facts of cannibalism – I really can’t offer praise much higher than that.

I think that there are two essential relationships that people can have to the grotesque.  Some people have a basic disinclination to the weird and the gross.  They find it aversive, or boring.  They have no interest in learning, say, which insects can lay eggs under your skin, or how to get a lightbulb out of a human rectum (or why someone would even put a lightbulb in a human rectum, for that matter), or what an infection of flesh-eating bacteria looks like, or any of the other creepy information lurking at the corners of the human world.

And then there are people like me.  It’s not that we like learning about serial killers, or bloodworms, or disturbing sexual perversions, not exactly.  It’s that, as soon as we learned that the knowledge existed, we needed to have it.  We were drawn to it.  The gruesome has an irresistible fascination for us; say to us, “Don’t look at that – it’s disgusting, or wrong, or forbidden”, and you have only assured that we will look.

If you are the sort of person who is not attracted to the strange, then ‘Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History‘ is not for you, and it will help not at all if I tell you that, for example, there is an entire chapter on sexual cannibalism in the animal kingdom (though, of course, that was an immense selling point for me).  It’s called ‘Sexual Cannibalism, or Size Matters’.

Which chapter heading also usefully describes the writing style of ‘Cannibalism’.  Although Schutt is a professor of biology, ‘Cannibalism’ is meant for a popular audience, and is written in a jokey, approachable style.

Bill Schutt.jpeg
Bill Schutt

I don’t mean that entirely as a compliment.  Popular science is difficult to write.  You never make everyone happy: you’re either too dense for the layman, or too dumb for the scientist.  Schutt isn’t quite able to make up his mind on which way he’d like to err, so he sort of tries to disguise a lot of the actual science by surrounding it with dramatic description and dad-jokes:

“Insects undergoing pupation, the quiescent stage of metamorphosis associated with the production of a chrysalis or cocoon, are also vulnerable to attack from younger conspecifics.  The ravenous larva of the elephant mosquito (Toxorhynchites) not only consumes conspecific pupae, but also embarks on a killing frenzy, slaying but not eating anything unlucky enough to cross its path.” (p. 23)

“All caecilians do share one characteristic unique to the amphibians: internal fertilization, and during this process, sperm is deposited into the female’s cloaca with the aid of a penis-like structure called a phallodeum…But as interesting as the concept of legless caecilians wielding their penises underground might be (admittedly, it disturbed some of my older Italian relatives until I explained the spelling differences)…” (p. 80)

But there is a lot of science, and that I do mean that as a compliment.  I learned a lot about cannibalism, both in humans and in animals  (I think my all-time favorite fun fact (soon to be deployed at parties, I can tell), is from the chapter on Christopher Columbus and the alleged cannibals he encountered in the New World:

“But whether or not these strange savages had tails (and even if they were supported by trained fish and Amazonian girlfriends), plans were soon being formulated to pacify the Caribs, who were now being referred to as Canibs.  According to scholars, the transition from Carib to Canib apparently resulted from a mispronunciation, although in light of stories describing locals as having canine faces, I agree with Yale professor Claude Rawson that “Canib” may also be a degenerate form of canis, Latin for “dog”.  Eventually, canib became the root of “cannibal,” which replaced anthropophagi, the ancient Greek mouthful previously used to describe people-eaters.” (p. 102)).

And Schutt deals properly and respectfully with the problem that many of the “facts” of human cannibalism, the famous stories from Papua New Guinea and of the Aztecs, among others, are probably exaggerated or fabricated.  Even the so-called eye-witness reports were often racially biased, and accusing a tribe or a people of cannibalism was often just the easiest moral justification for enslaving them and confiscating their property.

I also want to put a small plug in for the illustrations, which are weird and charming and chosen without rationale that I can understand.  Some are deeply helpful and clearly scientifically apropos, but some are bizarre and seem to be there just to amuse, which they do.

For example, the first is a useful one from the chapter on the Donner Party, which shows their trail.  Next is one of dubious, but potential, utility, from the chapter on Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, of the structure of a ‘hypothetical prion’.  The third is stranger still, an illustration of ‘skull moss’, which is, as you might have expected, moss grown on a human skull (preferably that of a hanged man), and which was used to treat bleeding.  And, perhaps most confusingly, and also from the chapter on Mad Cow Disease, is a drawing of a hamburger, in case you didn’t know what one looked like.

As, I said, charming, about as charming as a book on cannibalism could possibly be.  And, if you are anything like me, that’s pretty charming.

Explaining Hitler

The Search for the Origins of His Evil

By Ron Rosenbaum

‘Explaining Hitler’ was one of those books that I knew I had to read as soon as I heard that it existed.  I thought that it would be right up my alley, and I was right.

Like so many historically-minded people, I’m a little obsessed with the fact of Nazis.

[I will allow myself a little self-serving quotation here: “When asked whether it was possible to think too much upon the Holocaust, [W.G.] Sebald said, ‘No serious person thinks of anything else.'” (p. 412)  I totally agree.]

Even if you take, as I do, a dark view of humankind, the Nazis are an outlier on the Evil Scale.  Anyone trying to get their arms around humanity’s capabilities must fit Nazis into their theory, must take account of the ability of an entire nation to rise up in a seizure of controlled, insane, determined violence.

Hitler himself must be part of that equation, whether you consider him the author of all the evil or a historical coincidence (‘if it had not been him, it would have been someone else’).  So people who are, as I am, interested in evil, or in the wickedness of human nature, end up reading a lot about Hitler.

But ‘Explaining Hitler‘ isn’t really about Hitler.

Rather, it is a history of Hitler theories.  It’s a long, ambivalent interrogation of our relationship with Hitler.  It’s about what Hitler represents, the various psychoanalytical and historical models that we have used to understand him, and about how those theories reflect back on us.

Explaining HitlerIt’s about why we need to explain Hitler.  It’s about why he, in particular, has obsessed us for so long, what it would mean to really understand him.  It’s about whether evil exists, and, if it does, what that means about the world.  It’s about what price we pay for thinking about Hitler too hard, and what price we might pay for not thinking about him enough.

It is exactly my kind of book.

To give you a sense of what I mean, let’s take a brief whirl through the table of contents:

‘Part 1: The Beginning of the Beginning’ is about the myths and origin stories about Hitler’s early life, the little that is known about his family, and about how the newspapers in Germany at the time of his rise understood him.

‘Part 2: Two Postwar Visions: Sincerity and Its Counterfeit’ features the work of two post-war Hitler scholars, H.R. Trevor-Roper and Alan Bullock, and their debate about whether or not Hitler was ‘sincere’ in his anti-semitism, or whether he was merely a cynical and opportunistic politician playing on the anti-Semitism of the country he was hoping to rule.

‘Part 3: Geli Raubal and Hitler’s “Sexual Secret”‘ is about all the weird theories around Hitler’s sex life: whether he had one, whether it was abnormal, and whether those facts had anything to do with his political identity.

‘Part 4: Hatred: Complex and Primitive’ discusses whether Hitler was secretly Jewish, and whether or not that might be the source of his virulent anti-Semitism.

‘Part 5: The Art of Evil and the Future of It’ is about what happens when Hitler scholars try too hard to get into the Hitler headspace, and about the most famous Holocaust denier (or ‘Revisionist’), David Irving.

‘Part 6: The War Over the Question Why’ criticizes the position taken by some Holocaust chroniclers, most notably Claude Lanzmann, that to even seek to understand Hitler is “obscene”, because an explanation would inevitably, to some degree, exculpate him, and because to understand is, perhaps, to empathize.

‘Part 7: Blame and Origins’ covers the work of several scholars of Hitler and the Holocaust, namely Emil Fackenheim, Yehuda Bauer, George Steiner, Hyam Maccoby, Daniel Goldhagen, and Lucy Dawidowicz, on questions like: Would an omnipotent and just God allow the Holocaust to happen?  Why, of all the nations in Europe, did Germany fall prey to a Hitler?  When exactly did Hitler decide to exterminate the Jewish race in Europe?

Ron_Rosenbaum
Ron Rosenbaum (looking, I think, unnecessarily ferocious for a journalist)

Explaining Hitler‘ is, essentially, a long existential query, and it reads like one.  I found it mesmerizing, but then, I would.  Rosenbaum interviews scholars, visits historic sites, pores over archives.  He asks complicated, devastating questions, and he records the answers of the men and women he’s interviewing, even when they are belligerent, or rude, or contradictory, or unconvincing.  He does not shy away from the global, or the grandiose.  It is clear, by the end, that most questions about Hitler are, ultimately, unanswerable, that the best we can do is be honest with ourselves about the dark potential of mankind.

“In declaring so offhandedly “the fact” that Hitler was a “person like you and me,” Bullock places himself squarely on the side of a great schism among Hitler explainers: those who speak of Hitler as “one of us,”, of a “Hitler within” all of us, of a potential for Hitlerian evil in all human nature, in our nature – and those who maintain one of several varieties of Hitlerian exceptionalism.  Exceptionalist arguments range from the belief that the magnitude of Hitler’s evil (however that magnitude is measured) surpasses that of previous malefactors of history to the most sophisticated theses of those like the philosopher Berel Lang who argue that it is the quality of Hitler’s intentionality, not the quantity of bodies, that makes the Nazi genocide a new chapter in a “history of evil”.  Beyond that are the more metaphysical and theological arguments of Emil Fackenheim, who rejects the idea of a Hitler “within us,” who argues instead that Hitler is beyond the continuum, off the grid, not explicable by reference to any previous version of human nature.  Rather, he represents some kind of “radical evil”, even an “eruption of demonism” into history, one so unprecedented it must cause us to reconsider our conception of God’s relationship to man.” (p. 85)

“Fackenheim’s notion of “posthumous victory” suggests that, much as we would like to understand Hitler, it is important to realize that we should in some sense also still be at war with him.  And there might be some value to continuing to resist, even to hate, the enemy.  Is hatred of Hitler still a legitimate response, or is it the kind of crude, debased emotional reaction that explanation and understanding should ideally lead us upwards from?  Is it bizarre, out-of-bounds, a sign of an unevolved sensibility, for a civilized, educated citizen of the post-Holocaust world to hate Adolf Hitler?  Put another way: Would it be a bizarre moral failure not to hate Hitler?” (p. 390)

If these are not the sorts of questions that get you going, if you don’t like moral dilemmas strung out over hundreds of pages, dense, insoluble ethical and historical riddles which force you to choose between a rock and a hard place, then ‘Explaining Hitler‘ is not the book for you.

But these are exactly the sorts of questions that get me going.  I love thinking about stuff like this, I do so voluntarily, in my free time, and so ‘Explaining Hitler‘ is like four hundred pages of exactly the kind of conversation I use to alienate people at parties!

What is evil?  Are people evil, or just actions?  Can we use a term like ‘evil’ when we’re talking about something merely human, and not actually Satanic?  Was Hitler evil?  Does it matter?  Was the entire Nazi leadership evil?  At what level does the evil stop: Nazi leadership, the S.S., the army, complacent civilians?  Can a whole nation be evil?  How about a species?

Who bears responsibility for the Holocaust?  What if you found out that Hitler had a brain tumor from 1918 on – would that make him less evil?  It certainly wouldn’t make the Holocaust less terrible, so how could it make him less evil?

Is it wrong to even ask these questions?  By seeking to understand Hitler, do we risk empathizing with him?  Or, on the other hand, do we have a responsibility to understand him, in order to make sure we spot the next Hitler before he kills millions of people?

I will also say this: I’ve read a lot of W.W. II history, and several Hitler biographies, and I encountered a bunch of stuff in ‘Explaining Hitler‘ that I hadn’t seen before.  Some of the theories of Hitler get very granular, and I learned things I hadn’t known about his rise, his life, and the post-Holocaust scholarship about him.

But, mostly, to me, ‘Explaining Hitler‘ was a long series of compelling questions, premises and thought-experiments about what is, for my money, one of the most interesting relationships of the 20th century: our relationship with Hitler.  There is no use pretending that we don’t have one – he is our go-to example of Badness, on the tip of our tongues even now, omnipresent in Godwin’s Law and political punditry and meme culture.  Hitler is important to us, not simply because of the enormities that he orchestrated, but because he represents the farthest-out version of ourselves, the most extreme human potential in Category: Evil.  We need to see the worst that we might be, and I think that we need to understand that worst.

Dust Tracks On A Road

By Zora Neale Hurston

All Posts Contain Spoilers

It is one of life’s great mercies that we are not forced to live by the opinions we held as teenagers.

Like many American teenagers, I was forced to read ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God‘ in high school.  I hated it.  I don’t really remember why now, but I know that I developed for that book a particular antipathy that was personal and intense, and colored my view of the author.  I didn’t just hate ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’, I decided; I also hated Zora Neale Hurston.

Then, a few years ago, I read the ‘The Best American Essays of the Century‘ anthology, and it included an essay by Hurston, written in 1928, called ‘How It Feels To Be Colored Me’.  It’s a short, funny little essay, and I loved it.  I loved her voice, and her point of view, and I began to wonder whether I might have been wrong to assign her a role as a literary nemesis.

About a year later, I read ‘The Serpent and the Rainbow‘, by Wade Davis, about Haitian zombies (which are real, as in real zombies, yes, zombies are real, read the book, it’ll all be explained), and he mentioned, almost out of hand, that much of the earliest work documenting the existence of zombies, and gaining access to the secret societies which produce them, had been done by an anthropologist named, you guessed it, Zora Neale Hurston.

Dust Tracks on a RoadSo, a few weeks ago, when I saw a beautiful, bright yellow copy of her memoir, ‘Dust Tracks on a Road‘ (honestly, it’s a jewel of an edition – you want to eat it, not read it), I decided to give Zora Neale Hurston the chance she should have gotten when I was in high school.

Hurston published ‘Dust Tracks on a Road‘ in 1942, when she was 51 (she would die in 1960, at the age of 69).  It is her telling of her own life, sometimes chronologically, sometimes thematically.  It was an interesting life, and would make for interesting telling regardless, but Hurston doesn’t spend as much time on the plotty parts (her two marriages, her time in Haiti and Bermuda and driving around the Deep South) as she does on the things which she felt gave her life meaning and texture.  She spends a lot of time in childhood; she grew in Eatonville, Florida, which was the first Negro town to be incorporated in the United States.  And she spends a lot of time describing the things that gave her life joy: music, friends, school.  She does not milk her life for its extraordinariness – rather, she describes the world as she saw it.

This may sound like a disappointing emphasis, since she did have such a remarkable life.  But ‘Dust Tracks on a Road‘ is a real pleasure, and not because you get to read much about her adventures.  Rather, Hurston’s memoir is such a joyful read because you get to spend it in her company, and she is outstanding.

Zora Neale Hurston, Class of 1928, Chicago, Ill., November 9, 1934
Zora Neale Hurston

First of all, Zora Neale Hurston is an amazing writer.  I’m talking an off-the-charts, batshit-nanners beast of prose composition.  She has a distinct writerly voice, a sort of folksy twang which is meant to disarm and which will make you think that she is less sophisticated than you.  You will be wrong.  She is so, so good at writing – I really don’t know how to say it better than that.  If the task of a writer is to communicate an idea, or a scene, or a sight, clearly, beautifully, and originally, then Zora Neale Hurston is one of the best American writers I’ve ever read.  Full stop.

Let me give you an example.  Here is a passage that Hurston wrote about her stepmother, the woman her father married when her mother died and whom she hated:

“Not every skunk in the world rates a first-class killing.  Hanging is too good for some folks.  They just need their behinds kicked.  And that is all that woman rated.”  (p. 96)

There are words in that passage, ‘skunk’, ‘folks’, behinds’, which are meant to sound conversational, demotic and casual.  That is not a passage which would, at first glance, impress you with the learning and precision of its author.  But consider that the same author will, only a few pages later, write this:

“There is something about poverty that smells like death.  Dead dreams dropping off the heart like leaves in a dry season and rotting around the feet; impulses smothered too long in the fetid air of underground caves.  The soul lives in a sickly air.  People can be slave-ships in shoes.”  (p. 107)

And you will see that you’re in the hands of a master, someone who deploys colloquialism not because she is herself unsophisticated, but because she has decided that wisdom is best expressed in simple language.

But her incredible facility with language is only part of what makes Hurston so much fun to read.  She was also possessed of a genuinely original outlook.  I can’t think of another writer with a voice at all like hers; there is no part of this book which could have been mistaken for the work of another person.

This distinction doesn’t just reveal itself in the language that she uses; it also comes through in the things she chooses to say.  She’s funny, and wise, and brave, and even though she wears these qualities lightly, they shine through all the time.  In her very framing of the problems of her life, you see a point of view which is novel and charming and courageous, really winning and really admirable.

I know I sound totally gaga about this, but let me give you a few examples, passages that I think are both beautiful and wise, and which I think only she could have written:

“People seldom see themselves changing.  It is like going out in the morning, or in the springtime to pick flowers.  You pick and you wander till suddenly you find that the light is gone and the flowers are withered in your hand.  Then, you say that you must turn back home.  But you have wandered into a place and the gates are closed.  There is no more sharp sunlight.  Gray meadows are all about you where blooms only the asphodel.  You look back through the immutable gates to where the sun still shines on the flowered fields with nostalgic longing, but God pointed men’s toes in one direction.  One is surprised by the passage of time and the distance travelled, but one may not go back.” (p. 65)

“I found out too that you are bound to be jostled in the “crowded street of life.”  That in itself need not be dangerous unless you have the open razors of personal vanity in your pants pockets.  The passers-by don’t hurt you, but if you go around like that, they make you hurt yourself.” (p. 148)

Or this, which was my favorite passage in the whole book, and which I would like to have printed on little leaflets that I can just give to people when I break up with them:

“No two moments are any more alike than two snowflakes.  Like snowflakes, they get that same look from being so plentiful and falling so close together.  But examine them closely and see the multiple differences between them.  Each moment has its own task and capacity, and doesn’t melt down like snow and form again.  It keeps its character forever.  So the great difficulty lies in trying to transpose last night’s moment to a day which has no knowledge of it.  That look, that tender touch, was issued by the mint of the richest of all kingdoms.  That same expression of today is utter counterfeit, or at best the wildest of inflation.  What could be more zestless than passing out cancelled checks?  It is wrong to be called faithless under circumstances like that.  What to do?

I have a strong suspicion, but I can’t be sure that much that passes for constant love is a golded-up moment walking in its sleep.  Some people know that it is the walk of the dead, but in desperation and desolation, they have staked everything on life after death and the resurrection, so they haunt the graveyard.  They build an altar on the tomb and wait there like faithful Mary for the stone to roll away.  So the moment has authority over all of their lives.  They pray constantly for the miracle of the moment to burst its bonds and spread out over time.” (p. 265)

Zora Neale
This is my favorite picture of her.

Sometimes, in reading as in life, you just fall in love with someone.  An author can compel your heart the way a lover can: they’re just right for you, they draw you to them and everything they do amazes you.

And you sound like a dummy about them for a while, the same way that you do when you’re in love.  You talk about them too much, people around you get bored listening to you.  That’s how I feel about Zora Neale Hurston, having read this book.  I’m blown away by how good she is – I want to tell everyone I meet about her.  I want to read everything she’s ever written.  I want to get her words tattooed on my back.

I won’t do that last thing, but I will go back and reread ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God‘.  I can’t wait.

.

Kill All Normies

Online Culture Wars From 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right

By Angela Nagle

Have you been feeling too good lately?  When you look around at the world, does it seem too happy, safe, and congenial a place for your liking?  Would you like to feel more dismal about the state of your country, your fellow man?  Have you been trying to quit the Internet, looking to be driven offline, perhaps in despair?

Then, boy, do I have the book for you!  It’s not long, just a svelte 120 pages, but don’t worry!  There is enough disgusting human behavior in those 120 pages to fuel your misanthropy for the rest of your life.

Kill All NormiesKill All Normies‘ is Angela Nagle’s brief exploration of the once-fringe Internet subcultures which came to play significant roles in the 2016 United States presidential election.  Nagle frames these broadly as extensions of a broader culture war, starting in the 1960s, which saw the transgression against normal social mores as a goal, rather than as a tool, of social change.

More granularly, ‘Kill All Normies‘ is a summary history of the online evolutions of the alt-right and identitarian far left movements in the United States.  She covers personalities, fora (Tumblr, Reddit, 4chan, &c), and specific events (Gamergate, Harambe).  She also explicates these phenomena within the cultural history of the United States, looks at how they relate to the political system in this country, and briefly discusses the critical texts which influenced them.  It is part history, part anthropology, part semiotics text.

And, from a humanist point of view, it’s gruesome.  If I didn’t think the end was nigh before I read this, I certainly do now.  Nagle covers, cursorily, the Manosphere, the Alt-Right and ethno-nationalism, Trump’s toxic Twitter army, Tumblr’s witch-hunty call-out culture, and the porny, hostile, insular world of 4chan.  I challenge anyone to read about those cultural infestations and still feel good about us as a species.

Angela Nagle
Angela Nagle

Nagle, it should be said, does not treat all these things as morally equivalent, and a denizen of, say, the Manosphere might take issue with her relative treatments (if he deigned to read books written by ‘holes’, that is).  She has a point of view, and she’s pretty upfront about it.  When she thinks something is revolting, she says so.  She openly deplores misogyny, racist rhetoric and attacks, threats, suicide encouragement, and homophobia.  She identifies as a feminist.

For all that, though, she is more even-handed than one might have expected her to be.  She faults both the left and the right for viciousness in the culture war.  She devotes an entire chapter to campus witch hunts from the left.

“At first, self-righteously or snarkily denouncing others for racism, sexism or homophobia was the most instantaneous and certain way to achieve social media fame.  Something about public social media platforms, it turned out, was conducive to the vanity of morally righteous politics and the irresistible draw of the culture wars.  But soon the secret was out and everyone was doing it.  The value of the currency of virtue that those who had made their social media culture capital on was in danger of being suddenly devalued.  As a result, I believe, a culture of purging had to take place, largely targeting those in competition for this precious currency.  Thus, the attacks increasingly focused on other liberals and leftists often with seemingly pristine progressive credentials, instead of those who engaged in any actual racism.” (p. 77)

“I often think the brain drain out of the left during this period because of the Tumblrization of left politics has done damage that will prove long-lasting.” (p. 80)

That Nagle has enormous contempt for this kind of hysterical, self-cannibalizing virtue-signaling is clear.  What is equally clear (in fact, explicit) is that she considers “actual racism” and misogyny much more dangerous.

“The alt-light figures that became celebrities during this period made their careers exposing the absurdities of online identity politics and the culture of lightly thrown claims of misogyny, racism, ableism, fatphobia, transphobia and so on.  However, offine, only one side saw their guy take the office of US president and only one side has in their midst faux-ironic Sieg Heil saluting, open white segregationists and genuinely hate-filled, occasionally murderous, misogynists and racists.” (p. 9)

I was at least passingly familiar almost all of the cultural phenomena Nagle references, and, when I wasn’t, she gives enough of a sketch that I was able to place the reference in context.  I also have some experience reading criticism, and so I was able to grapple with some of the unwieldy and vague critical concepts that Nagle handles pretty casually.  In general, though, ‘Kill All Normies’ favors breadth over depth, and readers who don’t have a passing familiarity with famous Twitter flame wars or Nietzsche might find the pacing of the text a little difficult to follow.

Another problem is that Nagle writes like a journalist.  She’s great when it comes to shorter, declarative sentences, but when she’s handling more complicated material, she over-clauses and under-punctuates, which can make it hard to trace her antecedents and follow her argument.  ‘Kill All Normies’ is a book you’ll read for content, not for style (although some of her dry asides are really great, like this:

“The left’s best critic of this disease of the left had just died and dancing on his grave was a woman who once blogged about baking bread using her own vaginal yeast as a feminist act.” (p. 117)

Or this:

“The Men Going Their Own Way (MGTOW) movement is a straight male separatist group whose members have chosen (ahem) to avoid romantic relationships with women in protest against a culture destroyed by feminism” (p. 94))

But content is a excellent reason to read, and this is important material.  I appreciated ‘Kill All Normies’ mainly for two reasons:

  1.  Though I have managed to glean much of this information myself over the years, by being a relatively plugged-in person, I have not seen so much of it collected in one place, or organized at all well.  This is a reasonable, if not comprehensive, glossary of the culture wars raging around us all the time, and now that they have impinged on our political lives so dramatically, it is time to start thinking about them as a single phenomenon.
  2. I am, though leftist myself, happy to see Nagle approach the fringes of the left and the right as though they might be understand as part of single cultural battle.  Because we in the trenches think of ourselves as value-driven, we don’t tend to step back and look at trends of the battlefield itself, the way our weapons influence their weapons and vice versa.  Nagle’s book does this, and it was helpful to me.  I think her criticisms of both sides were fair, and proportionate to their sins.

However, appreciating a book and enjoying a book are two different things.  I learned something from ‘Kill All Normies‘, but it also ruined my week.  It is, at its heart, an exploration of a facet of my culture, a side of humanity in my time, which I find demoralizing: rancid, mean-spirited, venomous, and evil.  Even though it is a short text, an minute spent among the sort of bottom-dwellers who sent Anita Sarkeesian rape threats during Gamergate is like a year among the morally normal.  And one of the very frightening lessons of ‘Kill All Normies’ is that there are more people inhabiting the vile fringes of both sides than I, and perhaps you, had expected.

So it’s not a cheerful read.  It will probably make you feel worse about the world, about the people around you.  It’s the sort of book that makes you more suspicious, less trusting, and, in that way, perhaps a less good person for having read it.  This is not the fault of the author, obviously, but a logical result of the information that she is presenting.  And I believe that it is always better to confront the world as it is, not as we wish it to be, and if that upset us, well, bummer.  So I would recommend reading ‘Kill All Normies‘, especially if you are interested in understanding the cultural or political moment a little better.

But brace yourself, ’cause it’s ugly.

Shrill

By Lindy West

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Unfortunately, I’m going to have to rave about another book.

I apologize – I know that this has been happening a lot lately.  I’m very suspicious of people that like everything, or only have nice things to say about the content they are consuming.  To my mind, positivity is a sure sign of thoughtlessness.

A reader who loves every book they read is a reader who isn’t thinking very hard about books, and therefore has no business writing about them.  But I would like to promise, before I get about the business of loving this book, that I hate plenty of books.  I’m sure I’ll hate the very next book I read.  I’ve just been on a lucky streak lately, batting way above my normal average (although, in fairness to myself, I do think I had some critical things to say about Jane Austen recently…).

And I will make one more small point in my own defense: I thought that I was going to hate ‘Shrill‘.  I did not pick it – it was a gift – and it was chosen for reasons which were not persuasive to me.  This happens not infrequently: someone will give me the work of a female author, usually a funny or acerbic one, with the explanation, “She’s sharp, and you’re sharp, so I thought that you might like her.”  Unfortunately, that both Lindy West and I are a) female and b) smart, is not enough to make me like her book.  So I picked up ‘Shrill’ anticipating a hate-read.

ShrillShrill‘ is a collection of personal essays, and the personal essay is a difficult form.  When it’s good, it’s sublime, but to work it needs an author who is a good writer with a distinct worldview, who has experience worth writing about (or a gift for making any experience into a story), and who possesses a basic humanity.  This last attribute is the most important, and hard to define.  To write an entire book about yourself is an act of narcissism; in order to avoid becoming insufferable, the author of that book must possess grace, must show more forgiveness of others than they do of themselves, must not grovel and play at false humility, but also must not brag.  We must be able to trust them on their own strengths, and therefore they must show their weaknesses.

Lindy West is well-known at this point; if you’re a feminist, an active misogynist, or a reader of the New York Times, you’ve probably heard of her. She is most famous as a feminist writer: she has written about high-controversy issues such as whether or not rape jokes are funny, and what it’s like being a fat woman.

[An aside, West refers to herself as a fat woman, and since this one of the subjects on which she is the most moving and effective as a writer, I am going to use her terminology, and not employ any of the euphemisms which she decries in her own text.]

A lot of the writing in this book revolves around what it is like to be a fat woman, and to be a fat woman who lives in the public eye, who writes about being fat and rape jokes and about the treatment of women broadly.  West records the volume and tenor of the abuse she receives, but she also writes about the less conspicuous humiliations and indifferences that she suffers, and has suffered her entire life.

And she writes about them well.  ‘Shrill‘ isn’t a cri de coeur; it isn’t a harangue about the treatment of women, or fat people.  It is a simple, effective plea for decency.  Sometimes this plea takes the form of polemic, but mostly it takes the form of memoir: West shows you that she is a person, and leaves it to you to imagine what it might feel like for a person, say, to receive a message which said:

“No one would want to rape that fat, disgusting mess.” (p. 197)

Or

“What a fucking cunt.  Kill yourself, dumb bitch.” (p. 199)

Or

“Holes like this make me want commit rape out of anger, I don’t even find her attractive, at all, she’s a fat idiot, I just want to rape her with a traffic cone” (p. 202)

[If you, like me, find this level of abuse frankly astonishing, it’s worth watching the video West filmed of herself simply reading the Twitter comments she gets: If Comedy Has No Lady Problem, Why Am I Getting So Many Rape Threats?]

Because her writing is clear, and her voice is so direct, you can’t, as her reader, avoid making an empathic connection with her.  She is extremely reasonable, especially when she is presenting her own experience, and so you often end up suffering for her sake, with her, at the things which she has gone through:

“It felt alien to be confronted so vocally and so publicly (and for such an arbitrary reason), but it also felt familiar.  People say the same kind of thing to me with their eyes on nearly every flight – this guy just chose to say it with his mouth.

This is the subtext of my life: “You’re bigger than I’d like you to be.” “I dread being near you.” “Your body itself is a breach of etiquette.” “You are clearly a fucking fool who thinks that cheesecake is a vegetable.” “I know that you will fart on me.”

No one wants to sit next to a fat person on a plane.  Don’t think we don’t know. (p. 141)

giggle
Lindy West

That essay, ‘The Day I Didn’t Fit‘, was incredibly moving for me.  It cut right to heart of me, made me think carefully about my own behavior and beliefs, made me ashamed.  It’s an unusual essay which, all by itself, will be responsible for an entire reallignment of your moral priorities towards a whole group of people – that essay has done that for me.

But this book came to mean the most to me as woman.  The simplicity of West’s declaration of her own humanity, and therefore of mine, felt profound to me.  It wasn’t dense, or theory-laden; quite the opposite.  It was the clear and unmistakable declaration: we are women, we are people, these are the things that hurt us, we wish not to be hurt.  And, at a time in my own culture where feminism, femininity, masculinity, and power are all such complicated and murky topics, that declaration sounded to me like the ringing of a bell.

I really don’t want to make this book sound grim – it emphatically isn’t.  It is extremely funny.  I laughed loudly enough that I drew looks when I read it in public; I made a small scene on the subway on the way to the hair salon when I read this:

“What is the point of sexualizing a fish-person?  It’s not like you could really have sex with King Triton, because FISH PENIS.  I don’t think fish even have penises anyway.  Don’t they just have, like, floppy anal fins that squirt out ambient sperms in the hope that lady-fishes will swim through their oops-cloud? Is that what you really want from your love-making, ladies!?  To inadvertently swim through a miasma of fin-jizz and then call it a night?  A merman is only a hottie with a naughty body if you are half attracted to fish.  In conclusion, IT’S A FUCKING FISH-MAN TRYING TO DRAG YOU TO THE OCEAN FLOOR, WHERE IT PLANS TO USE YOUR DEAD BODY SEXUALLY.  KILL IT.  IT HAS A FORK.”  (p. 8)

I made a small scene in my hair salon when I read this passage:

“Those two contradictory approaches (periods are the best! and we must never ever speak of them), made me feel like I was the only not-brainwashed one in a culty dystopian novel.  ‘Oh, yes, you can’t imagine the joy readings in your subjectivity port when the Administration gifts you your woman’s flow!  SPEAKING OF THE FLOW OUTSIDE OF THE MENARCHE BUNKER WILL RESULT IN DEACTIVATION.'” (p. 25)

West is merciful enough to break up even her most exposed, wrenching passages with humor; it is her most salient and excellent characteristic.  It also heightens the impact of her rhetoric.  Because she is so funny, because her humor seems so effortless and natural, when she tells you something seriously, you believe her.  ‘Shrill‘ is a red-herring of a title: West is not shrill.  She is measured, witty, reasonable, and convincing.

I don’t like to extol books.  I don’t like full-throated praise; it makes me feel uncritical and unsophisticated.  But, to be perfectly frank, this book moved me, and along more than one axis.  It had tremendous meaning for me as a women: West’s writing about feminist issues is brave, and kind, and true.  It will change, dramatically, how I think about issues of body weight going forward.  And it made me laugh, a lot.

Mostly, though, I feel grateful to have gotten to know her a little.  Lindy West, the author, was really fun to spend time with, and I’m better for it.