Americans buy books — they don’t read

What follows is nitpicky and petty. I want it up as a reminder to myself to observe parallel structure, follow up on what my sentences say, engage difficult themes, and write with a sense of purpose.

With exquisite prose, Matthew Stevenson writes in Harper’s about a Bill O’Reilly book with sections which read like a “grade school paper.” I’ve been writing so badly for so long that I want to examine the passage he cites as an example. Maybe I can elevate my writing to the level of a third grader if I absorb the right lessons:

Unlike the coral and jungle of Peleliu, or the remote black volcanic soil of Iwo Jima, Okinawa is a well-populated island full of farmers. Its citizenry is a mixture of Japanese and Chinese. Many have already committed suicide rather than succumb to the invaders. The verdant fields of okra and eggplant that should be carpeting the countryside have been trampled by soldiers, cratered by shelling and littered with the detritus of war: spent casings, empty food tins, burning vehicles, and, of course, dead bodies. (1)

My first reaction: *gulp*. I know this blog of mine doesn’t have passages a tenth as clear. Of course, if you read those above sentences aloud, it does sound like a grade schooler wrote it. The first sentence jumps from “coral and jungle” and “remote black volcanic soil” to “well-populated island full of farmers.” How one can be so deaf to parallelism is beyond me. Not only does “well-populated island” not fit, but “remote black volcanic soil” clunks along compared to “coral and jungle.” All one has to do is stick to the format one established; a description like “coral and jungle” for Peleliu could be matched by something like “soil and ash” for Iwo Jima.

The attempt to introduce the island as a distinct location devolves into this babyishness: “Its citizenry is a mixture of Japanese and Chinese. Many have already committed suicide rather than succumb to the invaders.” Stevenson notes that “Its citizenry is a mixture of Japanese and Chinese” is factually wrong, but regardless, what purpose this detail serves I have no idea. It sounds like the kind of thing people scribble when they have no experience whatsoever in writing or media. To be clearer about why it’s so terrible, note that it follows a sentence which tries to get the reader to imagine the locale. That prior sentence has not been allowed to develop into anything more significant. O’Reilly and his co-author move on, knowing dollars await them. Each of his stupid books populates The New York Times bestseller lists for months, and he knows he can get away with anything. Americans buy books — they don’t read. Thus, the tragedy of a people completely overcome by fear, so much so that death feels a better escape than the arrival of the Americans, is treated like so: “Many have already committed suicide rather than succumb to the invaders.” At this moment, I will simply comment that if this sentence does not seem to parallel the ones previous, or build on them in any logical way, you’re not alone in that opinion.

O’Reilly’s writing (and by extension America’s aesthetic standards, ability to grapple with history, ability to reason) gets substantially worse when it could almost be good. Ultimately, this is dogshit: “The verdant fields of okra and eggplant that should be carpeting the countryside have been trampled by soldiers, cratered by shelling and littered with the detritus of war: spent casings, empty food tins, burning vehicles, and, of course, dead bodies.” Like dogshit, it does have a purpose. It does get the reader to imagine what was lush farmland being devastated by war. The reader knows the middle of a battle is being discussed. Also, it needs to be picked up because it is a public health hazard. As quasi-poetic hack work, it undoes itself with a thud when it ends with “dead bodies.” The sentence itself should never have been written. People killed themselves before the battle started because they worried that it and what resulted would be worse than hell. Any writer with two cells for a brain knows they have to follow up on that theme, not just throw a lot of details down.

The fundamental problem of this kind of writing is that places, people, and things are brought forth without any sense of purpose. The principle at play seems to be “If I describe stuff, people will think I know what I’m talking about.” My complaints about parallelism and even theme do not do justice to the bigger problem of best-selling authors rambling at length and this, of all things, creating our historical consciousness. “The troops are great” and “WWII was a moral cause embraced by a moral generation” are the type of proposition that do not lend themselves to any serious purpose. They might be true, but if they dominate any attempt to come to grips with the past, they’re worse than useless. At least O’Reilly’s schlock has the virtue of being obviously bad, though in this climate, I suspect it lacks even that.


(1) Passage quoted is from Killing the Rising Sun: How America Vanquished World War II Japan. Full citation:

O’Reilly, Bill and Martin. Dugard. 2016. Killing the Rising Sun: How America Vanquished World War II Japan. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

Emily Dickinson, “Not so the infinite Relations” (1040)

Afflicted, you will sigh, eventually. Not that you’re not angry, or refusing to fight; not that you’re defeated or fatally disappointed. It will be just one of those times, an exception to your normal behavior, a time when you simply want to breathe for an extra moment.

At that time, your sigh takes on a certain poetry. About the last two lines of this short Dickinson poem are most definitely a sigh, a wish that the world was a different place entirely. There seems to be another realm, one much better than this one: On High / Affliction but a Speculation — And Woe / A Fallacy, a Figment, We Knew —

Not so the infinite Relations (1040)
Emily Dickinson

Not so the infinite Relations -- Below
Division is Adhesion’s forfeit -- On High
Affliction but a Speculation -- And Woe
A Fallacy, a Figment, We knew --

A later time, another place, On High, we feel Affliction but a Speculation. The only pain can be imagined. Woe, A Fallacy, a Figment, We knew. These lines sound like a vision of Heaven. Our pain can only be guessed at, as it was something we once knew, but maybe are forgetting.

Ay, there’s the rub. We sigh, wishing for a better place. What exactly have we wished for? Heaven depends on our pain, and if it does not depend on our pain, then it erases us. Affliction but a Speculation destroys our experience; Fallacies and Figments are what we know on this Earth. Wishing for a painless realm is crazy.

Yet we need to do it. Those of us afflicted need to fight the pain to survive. Feeling better is not just a matter of indulging, as we try to feel happier so we can act better. We create a vision of a painless realm to motivate ourselves.

That, I think, helps explain the first two lines of this extended sigh. Not so the infinite Relations — Below / Division is Adhesion’s forfeit. Here we are, below, defined by division. True unity eludes us, infinite Relations are impossible. What is Dickinson speaking about? Does she mean by “affliction” and “woe” that people don’t stick together, hurting each other? That our vision of Heaven involves our forgetting the harm done unto us, and in a way forgetting ourselves?

Even though her language in the first two lines implies man as a social animal (“Relations,” “Adhesion”), I am tempted to think this more an individual declaration. Here’s a paraphrase of the poem I’m playing with: I do not have the power to relate to this entire world, as that would require infinite capacities. I must accept that I am a part of the world, even divided within myself. Sometimes, I need to learn to relate to my own pain, my inner divisions. However, the very willpower I need to accept my partiality, to overcome harmful divisions, stems from concepts that don’t make a lot of sense. The more I want my pain to go away — which I should want — the more I might be selling my experience short. The more I insist on forgetting my pain, the more I forget myself entirely.

Pablo Ruiz y Picasso, “Man with a Violin” (1912) and “Man with a Guitar” (1912)

The paintings themselves, via the Philadelphia Museum of Art: Man with a Guitar | Man with a Violin

Simple enough, right? The first step to understanding something is to depict it properly. You’re an artist of staggering genius and people around you are playing instruments. Just paint them in the act, while the tunes reverberate in your ears — oh, but how will you convey, how will you remember, how will you explore their actually making music?

Picasso’s “Man with a Violin” (1912) and “Man with a Guitar” (1912) are not only exercises in Cubism. They are portraits with a particular purpose, devoted to rendering the fusion between artist, artist’s tools, and the resulting product. I am not speaking any less than literally here: distinguishing the violinist from violin and the guitarist from guitar in both paintings is impossible. In “Man with a Violin,” one can see a small foot at the bottom of a triangular-shaped compound. Through a mess of thin, vertical rectangles, the triangle shape lends itself to a strong sensation of ascent. Slightly above the foot are the sound-holes of the violin, then at the tip of the triangle, towards the top of the canvas, there’s part of a face and, cast off to the right, an ear. The nods to human form, the rectangles reaching, the compound pointing, blues, darks, and browns dominating the palette: it isn’t hard to conjecture a violinist trying to create a transcendent tune despite himself. He’s reaching, and maybe the colors — I’m thinking the blues and the darks — create a melancholic mood. I should add the rectangles, narrow and numerous, also give an impression of horizontal movement, as if a head is bobbing or an arm going back and forth. Still, the tight triangular structure makes this “motion” a refinement.

Perhaps “Man with a Violin” is about the struggle refinement and structure barely conceal. The man with a violin is broken, reconstructed with his instrument and tune. In “Man with a Guitar,” the guitarist has completely disappeared into a brighter brownish, silvery structure. The shapes composing the painting are wider, more horizontal: they’re the bricks of an ancient temple. In the center, something resembling stairs leads to something resembling an opening. The body of the guitar and the man himself have reconfigured into this quirky yet seemingly sacred building. For me, this evokes the layering of intricate melodies and variations. At some performances, the music surrounds you, and it’s like you’re entering another space entirely.

But does that mean the artist has truly disappeared into his art? Someone might blurt that the “Man with a Guitar” represents an ideal that the “Man with a Violin” fails to reach. I think the paintings call for more conjecture, but not quite that one. At some level, they push us to guess what music the musicians played. The violinist, maybe a longing, sad tune that displayed his virtuosity. The guitarist, maybe an elaborate one, traditional or classical. None of this can be proven in the least, of course, but this sort of consideration underwrites my thoughts above. The portraits, then, are about how we conceive people. We do so through their production, and that is just as faithless to them as it is faithful. In that sense, the fusion of painter, his tools, and his painting can be better approached. Picasso doesn’t really depend on brushes, paints, or canvas, but he does depend on his style. He communicates through his fragmented, complicated constructions, and in that sense, resembles the musicians. He is present in the work, regardless of how visible or invisible he is there, regardless of how different each of his paintings are.

Kay Ryan, “We’re Building the Ship as We Sail It”

I confess my knowledge of Aristotle is on par with my knowledge of nuclear physics. It’s nearly non-existent, even though I’ve spent considerable time studying Xenophon and Plato. Still, some stray bits and pieces of Aristotlean reasoning have stayed with me. One is the idea that a political regime taken to an extreme is no regime at all (e.g. insist on too much democracy, and you get tyranny). Another I’ve put as a maxim: you shouldn’t reason the same way in emergencies as you do in normalcy. A country fascinated with having as leaders generals and businessmen who have leveraged bankruptcy to their advantage, then, obsesses with the notion that knowledge is a panacea, able to solve any problem at any time. Unfortunately, life doesn’t work that way. Insist too much on the solution and the actual problem becomes obscured. Kay Ryan, in “We’re Building the Ship as We Sail It,” dwells on how artifacts of bad reasoning stay with us:

We’re Building the Ship as We Sail It (from Poetry)
Kay Ryan

The first fear
being drowning, the
ship’s first shape
was a raft, which
was hard to unflatten
after that didn’t
happen. It’s awkward
to have to do one’s
planning in extremis
in the early years –-
so hard to hide later:
sleekening the hull,
making things
more gracious.

Life as a ship should imply sailing over waters calm and harsh. I don’t know about you, but for all of my life I’ve been hammered with “How will you survive?” even in situations where I was doing perfectly well for myself. In this case, life as a ship takes a distinctly different shape: The first fear being drowning, the ship’s first shape was a raft. Fear means panic, and panic means throwing any old thing together, including something that cannot possibly suffice for the future. The raft was hard to unflatten after that [drowning] didn’t happen.

So Ryan starts with three ideas which expand upon our Aristotlean maxim. First, if you build from your fear and your fear only, you’re doing hack work. You’re not actually building anything useful for later. Second, you’re not appraising the situation correctly. Maybe drowning was a legitimate fear, but you exaggerated it at the expense of every other concern. Finally, what you built not only fails to suffice for your journey, but must be replaced.

Regarding that last thought: you still have to float. You can’t just throw the raft away. The fear of drowning was legitimate enough. It’s awkward to have to do one’s planning in extremis in the early years — so hard to hide later. This doesn’t mean Aristotle was wrong and people with advice at their worst are right. It’s more like this: no matter what, we’re going to be informed wrongly, stuck with some degree of fear or panic and reliant on some relic of it. (It goes without saying that anyone who wants to compare one person’s pain with another’s offhand is a complete idiot. What goes for normal situations always looks superficially similar to deadlier ones.)

So we’re stuck. We’ve got some fear, some bad reasoning, hiding in our reshaped ship. Is papering this over a denial of reality? If we sleeken the hull, making things more gracious, are we failing to be true to ourselves? These questions don’t really follow from Ryan’s treatment of the problem; “awkward” planning in early years, it being “hard to hide” the faults later — these concerns indicate a disposition which wants to change, which wants to solve problems. But I think those of us who get nervous can identify when we’ve wondered whether our fears, our worries, are something more permanent we can’t deny. Ryan implies an answer to this through the title: “We’re Building the Ship as We Sail It,” we are committed to being works in progress. As a result, grace is possible. We can be gracious, as long as we are willing to recognize our rough edges, how we’ve been wrestling, consciously or not, with our own formation.

Ha Jin, “Because I Will Be Silenced”

Express yourself in a manner so quiet that anything you say seems understated. With that tone established, make a radical claim, that your few words try to do nothing less than “break the walls that cut off people’s voices:”

Because I Will Be Silenced (from Poetry)
Ha Jin

Once I have the freedom to say
my tongue will lose its power.
Since my poems strive to break the walls
that cut off people’s voices,
they become drills and hammers.
But I will be silenced.
The starred tie around my neck
at any moment can tighten into a cobra.
How can I speak about coffee and flowers?

I’m curious as to how the stark, plain language creates a sense of understatement, and further, what that could mean. I want to express myself in the manner of this poem. I wish I could quietly say profound things, declare my powers and limits, then illustrate the difficulties which underlie any profundity.

If I could, I would be a better democratic citizen. The plainness of the poem starts with a sincere belief in equality, that sacrificing to stand as one is true freedom. Once I have the freedom to say / my tongue will lose its power. The poet contends his words empower others at the expense of the power of the words. Once your attack on censorship, your timeless defense of the right to speak, has become the rule, it falls into disrepair and disuse. This poet does not think of himself as conferring immortality through his craft, but instead sees his words as disposable.

At best, his words are tools, drills and hammers others employ to break the walls that divide them. Since my poems strive to break the walls / that cut off people’s voices, / they become drills and hammers. He doesn’t see himself as any kind of hero, but someone striving, striving to give others things they themselves will use. The plainness of the poem hides, again, a teaching which might stun one trained in classical literature: the rhetoric to defend freedom is no rhetoric at all. All that matters is that the poet tries, that others’ voices are cut off by walls, and drills and hammers are available. He can justify his treatment of the grandest themes by making humble claims.

It is precisely the humility of the claims which causes them to be silenced. Plenty have waxed eloquent about things which caused the displeasure of people with power. Family members with no boundaries, despotic states, and majorities who have willed themselves tyrannical see the threat as mere openness. Tyrants in families shelter their families, despots arrest crowds and journalists, and majorities make the reasonable illegitimate, elevating the absurd. But I will be silenced: the worst part is that you will utter words, and they may be forced into meaninglessness. The starred tie around my neck / at any moment can tighten into a cobra: in the very sense you speak for many, speak for a diversity, you are at risk of poisoning yourself. Your speech is not your own.

All of this leads to a complicated conclusion. How can I speak about coffee and flowers? Free people should be able to speak about whatever they want. People who love freedom, even if they don’t have it, need to be able to celebrate life’s graces. Yet only speaking of “coffee and flowers,” celebrating the world too much, allows no less than totalitarian societies to justify themselves. They can say that happiness and security are far more valuable goods than freedom, as everyone can attest to the value of happiness and security. How can I speak about coffee and flowers? One has to keep saying “freedom,” over and over, reaffirming one’s commitment and sincerity. Otherwise, it is possible that one will not become many, or an I becomes a We.