Posts Tagged ‘literature’

Robot Jim

March 10, 2011

I had some pretty strong feelings about the watering down of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but now I think the other side is starting to win me over. These people make some excellent points:

Here is where to go to contribute to this important project.


African-American Jim

January 6, 2011

One of the literary controversies that’s always left me the most befuddled is the reaction to Mark Twain’s portrayal of racism in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Critics of Twain’s portrayal of racist characters as… well, racist, have for a long time been trying to either censor or water down some of the language used. And now it looks like they have to some extent succeeded. From Reuters:

Twain scholar Alan Gribben said he decided to reissue the 19th century classic “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” replacing the slur with the word “slaves” in all 219 places it occurs in the text because the original offended many readers.

Here’s the thing though: If you read that book and your conclusion is that Twain is saying that Huck and his dad are awesome for saying “nigger” all the time and that Huck and Tom should be admired for keeping Jim in bondage when it’s no longer necessary to do so as if it’s part of some really cool game – and by extension that Twain is saying that slavery and Jim Crow laws are wonderful – then you’re not just wrong, you’re borderline illiterate. Someone who comes to that conclusion might be able to mechanically read actual words on a page (probably moving their lips in the process), but totally fails when it comes to deriving a larger comprehension of the words they’re reading. And if you’re worried about the children who might not pick up on the completely obvious moral of the story, then that is the problem of the parents and teachers of said children and not of the rest of us who know how to read.

So either this Gribben person is missing the whole point of this book or he’s catering to those who do, as if they somehow matter. I would lean towards the latter, but either way, the term “Twain scholar” should not be applied to him. And in censoring the book in this way, Gribben’s actually whitewashing late 19th century racism. Replacing “nigger” with “slave” ostensibly makes the racism of the characters Twain is portraying and attacking less offensive (although Roger Ebert disagrees on that point). But what interest should we have in making those who believe in inherent racial inequality more likeable? Why is that a priority for literary critics, or anyone, for that matter?

This is really the most insidious way of attacking good satire that those who would censor it have. They draw on the good instincts we all have against stupidity and racism and then use it against the target of the work in question. But what other choice does an author have? How can you attack racism without actually portraying it in a character?

That’s where all of this starts to get ugly. You have to wonder what it is exactly these “many readers” are offended by. If it’s just the actual word “nigger” devoid of any context at all, then they’re borderline-illiterate morons who have no business dictating how books should be published. But it also could be that they do understand the larger context and just don’t like Twain’s message. It’s not exactly subtle, after all. That’s just not how the guy rolled. They want a friendlier, happier, most nostalgic view of Reconstruction in the south and this book is depriving them of that fantasy. So they’ll try to water it down and censor it even if they have to bend over backwards betraying their true feelings to do so.

Fortunately we’re not all dumbed down enough to let this slide. The Librarian of the Year is speaking out against it (In other news, there is such a thing as a Librarian of the Year), along with other actual scholars who aren’t as stupid and/or sensationalist as this horrible Alan Gribben person.

Today is Ray Bradbury’s 90th birthday

August 22, 2010

And for the occasion Rachel Bloom of the Upright Citizens Brigade wrote and performed a romantic love song for him. Let’s listen to it now.

And here is his reaction to watching that video:

Kafka’s unpublished works cannot be published until his lawyers’ descendants navigate a maze of bureaucratic insanity

July 21, 2010

Before Kafka died, he asked his friend to burn all of his work. As those of us who have read him might have guessed, he wasn’t the happiest and most well-adjusted guy in the world. But thankfully his friend posthumously broke that deal, releasing some of it to the public and locking much of it away in a Swiss bank account.

Now it seems that some lawyers have been working their way through various courts in Switzerland and Israel to make sure that they follow the proper protocols and sign all the correct forms in order to ensure maximum efficiency in extraditing the vaults of Kafka’s as yet unpublished works.

As a Kafka fan, I’d like to be able to read some of it. But at the same time, it’d be very fitting if these conflicts between various bureaucracies all over the world just kept going on for decades over legal minutiae.

Books that influenced me the most

March 30, 2010

Ed Brayton at Dispatches From the Culture Wars is where I picked up this blog meme, and so I’m gonna go ahead and join in as well. Here are some books I’d call influential in no particular order.

Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S Thompson

Even though I was young still when I got to this, reading it made me suddenly realize that my whole idea of literature, journalism, and what they could be had become pretty uptight. My parents encouraged me to read and I enjoyed it a lot. But most of the stuff I went through before Fear and Loathing seemed almost bland and tedious when I was re-reading it after Fear and Loathing. It gave me this way of being critical of the stuffiness in language which I barely even notice beforehand.

Naked Lunch by William S Burroughs

I read the shit out of this book. I even took it to a photocopier to copy the whole damn thing and then do that cut-up thing he described in other works, except of course it wasn’t completely random like he claimed. Burroughs was definitely into some weird shit, but it was usually in the context of fiction so there’s no real problem with that seeping out into the real world (aside from his personal life). He always had this reckless approach to writing I admired and the result was that he could create these alternate realities which were both terrible and beautiful, nightmarish and utopian, and disgusting and amazing all at the same time. All of that is best conveyed in Naked Lunch. The film adaptation though, eh, it probably should never have even been attempted in the first place.

Manufacturing Consent by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman

This one is a little dated in some ways. It’s from the 80s, so this is all way before the internet made it easy to spread unpopular ideas and opinions. In order to hear those, you had to know who to look for and where to go to buy their books or magazines or whatever else. So to the extent that this was more all-encompassing this book is less relevant than it used to be. But where it’s still relevant is in how we can self-censor, and how much easier it is to err on the side of conservatism. I also loved how the approach to the study of the media is more scientific than rhetorical, which was refreshing. Of course it can’t be completely 100% scientific since you can’t really have a control group with historical events. For now at least, that would be considered “unethical.”

The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan

This is probably the best current book advocating science and skepticism out there. There are many layers here. So for instance you might open it at random and get to a page detailing an account of an alien abduction. If you keep reading, you’ll get to a larger context of the infallibility of eyewitness testimonies. An even larger context would be revealed if you keep reading and see how this connects to mistakes people made in the past about “witches” and “demons” – as well as the social problems caused by those mistakes. And in the context of the book as a whole you get back to the straightforward advocacy of science as the best tool we have in order to make sense of the world around us.

Video of Mark Twain

March 19, 2010

Here is what is apparently the only known video of Mark Twain. It was recorded by Thomas Edison.


February 21, 2010

On February 20, 2005, Hunter Thompson shot himself in the head with a shotgun. It is hard to believe it’s been five years already.

JD Salinger (1919-2010)

January 28, 2010

Man, the old fogies have really been dropping like flies lately.

Has anyone looked into whether his death was… phony?

Kurt Vonnegut’s letter home after Dresden

January 12, 2010

Kurt Vonnegut really was a POW at Dresden during the firebombing. That part of Slaughterhouse-Five was true. And now we’re learning that we really can become ‘unstuck in time’ so that we can go back to WWII and read #12102964 Pfo Vonnegut’s letter home following that bombing campaign.

Real education for today’s youth

November 5, 2009

As this esteemed panel of experts points out, kids these days are not learning some of the most crucial skills needed for a sustainable future society.

But worrying about the younger generation is not a new phenomenon. As Plato wrote in Laws:

Who is unable to count one, two, three, or to distinguish odd from even numbers, or is unable to count at all, or reckon night and day, and who is totally unacquainted with the revolution of the Sun and Moon, and the other stars… All freemen, I conceive, should learn as much of these branches of knowledge as every child in Egypt is taught when he learns the alphabet. In that country arithmetical games have been invented for the use of mere children, which they learn as pleasure and amusement… I… have late in life heard with amazement of our ignorance in these matters; to me we appear to be more like pigs than men, and I am quite ashamed, not only of myself, but of all Greeks.

And yet, today we face a possible calamity Plato never dreamed of. I speak of course of the imminent zombie apocalypse.

Thankfully, a choose your own adventure style book has been published in order to correct this troubling trend of zombie non-awareness in our youth.

Best Dr Seuss book ever

November 2, 2009

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Upcoming Documentaries

September 9, 2009

This first one covers a series of debates between Christopher Hitchens and Douglas Wilson. The filmmaker is a Christian, but he’s into punk music and skateboarding. Weird. Anyway, judging from the first few minutes of the film here, it seems very fair to both sides.

And there is now yet another documentary about William S. Burroughs. Soundtrack is by Sonic Youth. John Waters, Genesis P-Orridge, Laurie Anderson, Peter Weller, David Cronenberg, Iggy Pop, Gus Van Sant, Anne Waldman, James Grauerholz, Jello Biafra, Bill Ayers, and someone who has the largest collection of poisonous snakes in the world all show up, along with others I’ve never heard of.