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Happiness studies (Is that a legitimate category of research now? I think yes) have produced results that often surprise me and feel counterintuitive. One well known study from a few years ago found that happiness is not just the product of a proactive program of self help books and positive thinking. It also is impacted by the collective. The phenomenon of happiness spreads through social networks like an emotional contagion. As one researcher put it, “How happy you are may depend on how happy your friends’ friends’ friends are, even if you don’t know them at all…And a cheery next-door neighbor has more effect on your happiness than your spouse’s mood.” (An earlier post, Catching Some Happy, addresses some of the findings of that study.)

This phenomenon has naturally led to thoughts about what else might be operating in that emotional contagion model. What other emotions (or memes) are spilling over invisibly into our lives? Given the highly bipartisan state of our nation, it doesn’t seem to apply to political beliefs and our interpretive spin on reality. But what about the sought after qualities—bravery, inventiveness, resourcefulness, creativity, moxie–that are, like happiness, held in high esteem by everyone regardless of political affiliation?

I am operating in the zone of imaginative conjecture here but only because I am frequently inspired—deeply—when someone I know steps up and out of the quotidian and does something extraordinary.

I had just that experience this week when I received a copy of David B. Marshall‘s newly published book, The Lost Work of Wasps. Marshall became one of my favorite online connections when I discovered one of his blogs several years ago. He is a writer, artist and a teacher, and his posts on his most recent site Signals to Attend are full bodied, exquisitely wrought and always thoughtful. What I didn’t foresee was how transformed his jeweled insights—which I have been experiencing in serial form over time—are by taking up residence in book form.

Using the template first used by Yoshida Kenko, a 14th century Buddhist monk who assembled a collection of his brief essays into a book called Tsurezuregusa (Essays in Idelness), Marshall has found a container for his wide angle mind and eye. By combining words with his own drawings—he calls them “doodles”—The Lost Work of Wasps can be read in a linear fashion or in random access, Hafiz style. (In the Persian tradition, personal questions are answered by randomly opening the Oracle of Shiraz’s book of poems to find the answer.)

The idea of borrowing Kenko’s format may sound like a bit of cleverness, but it is neither manipulative nor misused. It is actually a perfect fit for the way Marshall’s mind moves from one concept to another. And having his thinking flow in my hand feels very different than scrolling down through his posts online. Blogs have their own footprint. So does a book.

I know this is obvious but I keep being surprised when I am reminded once again of how forms affect content. It’s like the experience of trying to move a small artwork into a large format and finding that it just won’t translate. Lyric isn’t epic, intimate isn’t high drama, and a book feels and reads differently than a blog.

And what a boost all of us get from Marshall’s bravery and vision. The spillover of creative resonance is like getting order for free in chaos theory. Thanks David, and congratulations.


Kellin and Sean Nelson, newly married (photo courtesy of David Webb and Kris Bell)

Just back from my daughter Kellin’s wedding in Hawaii. It feels silly to try to encapsulate a week’s worth of joy and intensity so I am not going there. Even for those of us who are not ceremonial or sentimental (I never had a wedding, didn’t want a ring or a name change), this was a week to remember. Every day was thoughtfully architected by Kellin and Sean. Every moment was led by their devotion to each other and to the community that gathered to join their lives together.

On the way home I read Zadie Smith’s compilation of essays, so winningly entitled Changing My Mind (a concept I hold dear and preserve as an indelible right throughout my life). One of my favorites was about Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston. In confronting the manner in which love and its tribulations are handled in that jewel of a novel, Smith has this to say about the book’s lead character Janie Crawford—and about any of us who have entered into that exquisite but potentially treacherous gauntlet:

The story of Janie’s progress through three marriages confronts the reader with the significant idea that the choice one makes between partners, between one man and another (or one woman and another) stretches beyond romance. It is, in the end, the choice between values, possibilities, futures, hopes, arguments (shared concepts that fit the world as you experience it), languages (shared words that fit the world as you believe it to be) and lives.

Smith also includes this passage from the novel and a contextualizing insight:

“She knew that God tore down the old world every evening and built a new one by sun-up. It was wonderful to see it take form with the sun and emerge from the gray dust of its making. The familiar people and things had failed her so she hung over the gate and looked up the road towards way off.”

That part of Janie that is looking for someone (or something) that “spoke for far horizon” has its proud ancestor in Elizabeth Bennet, in Dorothea Brooke, in Jane Eyre.

Yes, the decision to marry is so much more than the heat of young bodies or the gravitational pull to conform to cultural norms. It is a way of looking towards the way off, to the larger arc of a life and what it can be. And for those of us farther down the road towards that way off, Hurston knows how that place has its difficulties too: “She was a rut in the road. Plenty of life beneath the surface but it was kept beaten down by the wheels.”

Celebrations like this are the leaven in the loaf, with plenty of lift to go all round. We are all beneficiaries of that extraordinary something.

Sunrise on Kailua

T. S. Eliot

Harold Bloom first wrote about his now famous theory of the anxiety of influence in the early 1970’s while I was in college. Bloom focused on poetry and traced the complex challenge facing a poet in search of his or her own unique voice while being inspired—and intimidated—by a powerful precursor.

The concept of “anxiety of influence” quickly moved from poetry to every creative endeavor. It opened up all sorts of possibilities, like viewing the history of art through a Bloomian lens where every major breakthrough represents a step away from a powerful precursor’s domain. It also helped me see how certain eras speak to one generation and not to others.

A good example is the recent film by Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris. Light and entertaining, it embodied a fantasy that speaks directly to those of us who grew up in awe of a very particular era of time and its larger-than-life cast of characters—Henri Matisse, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Luis Buñuel, et al. But for my daughter, 30 years my junior, the movie was a dud. It made no connection, offered no fantasy fulfillment. Unlike Woody Allen and me, she was not raised on the magic of Paris in the 20’s.

Another giant presence from my coming of age years was T. S. Eliot. (Where he sits in the consciousness of a younger generation isn’t clear to me. Please feel free to share your thoughts on that in the comments section below.) But discovering his poems, particularly The Waste Land, was a watershed during my teenage years. William Logan‘s review of a newly released volume of Eliot’s letters, T. S. Eliot’s Rattle of Miseries, brought back that feeling of awe and fascination. It was also a sharp reminder of the tragic circumstances of the poet’s life. Of course when delivered up by Logan, gifted and insightful and also a poet, the telling is its own pleasure.

Here are a few passages for those of you who are also (and still) Eliotians:

Eliot’s criticism is now undervalued, dismissed by critics without half his sensibility or intelligence. The poems have so long been the foundation of modern anthologies that their reputation has almost as long worked against them (the one indispensable poem of the 20th century is still “The Waste Land”). Eliot’s best poems have almost disappeared beneath dust heaps of commentary, and the dust heaps that lie on those dust heaps. Much of his early work — “Prufrock,” the “Sweeney” poems, “Gerontion,” even “The Waste Land” — could be called urban eclogues, part of the turn in English poetry from the country to the city. It may take a long time to appreciate those poems afresh, after the poets who struggled against Eliot, whether as allies or enemies, are long dead; by that time his world will seem as out of date as Pope’s.

It’s possible to read “The Waste Land” not as a po-faced rattle of miseries by a man who has suffered a nervous breakdown but as a collection of mocking growls, often at his own expense — “rhythmical grumbling,” he later called it. The poem’s pitch-black despairs are leavened by the knockabout portrait of a workingman’s pub (reading the scene aloud, Eliot was mordantly hilarious), the cynical rendering of the typist’s sleazy liaison with the house-agent’s clerk, and the mortal comeuppances dealt to Phlebas and others. Emotionally, it is a shockingly cold poem. The famous notes, scribbled out to pad the American edition, are more like Pope’s cod learning in the “Dunciad” than the scholar’s self-justification for which they are sometimes mistaken (Eliot called himself ill-read). Eliot’s poems, especially the pre-Christian poems, have been so weighed down by the concrete overcoat of reputation, their terrifying humor has sometimes been forgotten or misread. With Swift, Byron and Carroll, Eliot was one of the great comic poets in English.

Knowing a man by the week-by-week crawl through his life is a bit like understanding a locust by examining the dried casing. Still, these letters do reveal the anxieties boiled down into “The Waste Land”…Together these volumes are like a long Russian novel that ends in midcareer, terrifying, humiliating and finally ­exhausting.

As unpleasant as air travel has become, it still serves up that delicious, “put your headphones on and block out the world” slot of time to just read. This weekend it was spent devouring Sarah Bakewell’s captivating and award winning book, How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer.

Always on the lookout for innovative ways of sharing, expressing and communicating, I found Bakewell’s format well suited for our current style of information ingesting. Ideas are chunked into chapters that can be read easily from start to finish on a subway ride or in a waiting room. Perfectly sized at blog post plus, each chapter is one of the many answers Montaigne offered to his overarching question: How to live?

A few of my favorites:

Don’t worry about death
Pay attention
Question everything
Keep a private room behind the shop
Wake from the sleep of habit
Reflect on everything; regret nothing.

In each chapter we learn a bit more about how Montaigne employed his point of view. While moral dilemmas interested him, Montaigne was less compelled by what people should do. His focus was on what they actually did. His voice is so refreshingly nonmoralistic or instructional; he observes everything—other people, animals and himself—with a spirit of compassion, non-judgment and genuine delight.

Bakewell’s approach allows her to deftly bring 16th century France right up close to the window of our own world. From her introduction:

The twenty-first century is full of people who are full of themselves. A half-hour’s trawl through the online ocean of blogs, tweets, tubes, spaces, faces, pages, and pods brings up thousands of individuals fascinated by their own personalities and shouting for attention…This idea—writing about oneself to create a mirror in which other people recognize their own humanity—has not exited forever. It had to be invented. And, unlike many cultural inventions, it can be traced to a single person: Michel Eyquem de Montaigne…

Montaigne created the idea simply by doing it. Unlike most memoirists of his day, he did not write to record his own great deeds…A member of a generation robbed of the hopeful idealism enjoyed by his father’s contemporaries, he adjust to public miseries by focusing his attention on private life.

In some ways Montaigne is a writer for middle age. I remember first reading his Essays when I was in high school. But the wisdom is the kind that rings true later in life, after you’ve explored a thousand ways things DON’T work. His willingness to say “who knows?” to just about everything (and that 100 years later enraged both answer-crazed thinkers like Descartes and Pascal) is a way of living in a world being torn apart by extremism.

A few excerpts:

Montaigne…proved himself a literary revolutionary from the start, writing like no one else and letting his pen follow the natural rhythms of conversation instead of formal lines of construction. He omitted connections, skipped steps of reasoning, and left his material lying in solid chunks, coupe or “cut” like freshly chopped steaks. “I do not see the whole of anything,” he wrote.

“Of a hundred members and faces that each thing has, I take one, sometimes only to lick it, sometimes to brush the surface, sometimes to pinch it to the bone. I give it a stab, not as wide but as deep as I know how. And most often I like to take them from some unaccustomed point of view.”

How puny is the knowledge of even the most curious person, he reflected, and how astounding the world by comparison. To quote Hugo Friedrich…Montaigne had a “deep need to be surprised by what is unique, what cannot be categorized, what is mysterious.”

As T. S. Eliot also remarked:

“Of all authors Montaigne is one of the least destructible. You could as well dissipate a fog by flinging hand-grenades into it. For Montaigne is a fog, a gas, a fluid, insidious element. He does not reason, he insinuates, charms, and influences, or if he reasons, you must be prepared for his having some other design upon you than to convince you by his argument.”

Ah Montaigne, beloved master of the both/and.

In the liminal zone…

Rivka Galchen is one of those way too smart, “go to medical school before you finish your undergraduate degree and then get your MFA in creative writing” types. Her first novel, Atmospheric Disturbances, was published in 2008. So it seems apropos that a polyglot mind writes about another—in this case, Galchen on Jorge Luis Borges.

In her recent essay in the New York Times Book Review, she states her view of the unrivaled dullness of literary worship (I so don’t agree!) before continuing her homage the extraordinary mind that was Borges.

More than any other 20th-century figure, Borges is the one designated — and often dismissed as — the Platonic ideal of Writer. His outrageous intellect is cited as proof of either his genius or of his bloodless cerebralism…But perhaps Borges’s most glorious and provocative “fault” was that he lived to be 86 and never wrote a novel. “It is a laborious madness, and an impoverishing one,” he wrote, in the introduction to a 1941 collection of his short stories, “the madness of composing vast books…The better way to go about it is to pretend that those books already exist, and offer a summary, a commentary on them…Reading was faith; writing a call-and-response form of prayer. To love a text: isn’t that just to find oneself helplessly casting about for something to say in return?”

He certainly did read vast books, however. For us Borges may be the ur-writer, but he thought of himself primarily as a reader; writing was just among the most intensely engaged ways of reading.

Turns out Borges adored Robert Louis Stevenson. Who knew? In a mirrored discussion of Borges’ favorite Stevenson novel, The Wrecker, Galchen brings it in with this observation: “So why did Borges read and reread “The Wrecker”?… Borges’s readerly attention re-invents Stevenson, just as his writerly attention created those vast unwritten books that Borges chose not to write, but just to imagine and comment on.”

These unwritten books that are only imagined are like the unpainted paintings that live in my mind’s eye like an ambient, perpetually unrolling canvas. They have a power and a presence for me, but it isn’t one I’ve been able to leverage with the grand gesture that was Borges’. Reading Galchen’s essay offered some solace and credence however to the validity of that invisible and imaginary domain.

Falling water: Is it narrativistic or episodic?

An excellent article by Lee Siegel (author of Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob) appeared in the Wall Street Journal. At first blush it may seem to be yet another Robert Benchley “pick one” dichotomous probe (It was Benchley of the Round Table who made the famous statement, “There are two kinds of people in the world—those that divide the world into two groups, and those that don’t.”) but I found the discussion to be of deeper value than a superficial differentiation. Referring to British philosopher Galen Strawson’s controversial essay that differentiates between Narratives and Episodics, Siegel gives these antipodal concepts an American literary tilt.

Here’s a sampling:

This being the 100th anniversary of the first American edition of “Huckleberry Finn,” it is the perfect time to ask an essential question: Are you a Narrative or an Episodic personality? In other words, do you believe that your life tells a meaningful story? Or do you think that you live, like Huck Finn and every other picaresque hero, from isolated minute to isolated minute—episode to episode—and that far from adding up to a coherent tale, your life is “a tale told by an idiot… signifying nothing”?

Hemingway was correct when he said that all American literature comes from Mark Twain’s classic tale of the runaway boy and the fugitive slave. Hemingway’s own “In Our Time,” a collection of interrelated short stories that portray the episodic adventures of a young boy named Nick Adams, is a model of the genre. Picaresque novels define our national literature: Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer,” William Faulkner’s “The Reivers,” Saul Bellow’s “The Adventures of Augie March,” Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” John Barth’s “The Sotweed Factor,” Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye,” Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five”—the list goes on and on. Even non-fiction has been influenced by the episodic style. The so-called “gonzo” journalism of a writer like Hunter Thomson, with its adventurous protagonists passing through random events, is the non-fiction equivalent of the picaresque.

But episodic fiction has been dealt a sorry hand of late. Our most popular critically acclaimed novels are pure narratives. Their straightforward storytelling style connects events together in one continuous thruline whose fundamental purpose is to reveal the Big Fated Meaning of life. In the war between Narratives and Episodics, the former are winning hands-down…

Episodics do seem to have a firmer grasp of reality’s fluid nature. Rather than experiencing life as a continuous thread of related experiences, Episodics consider their “self” to be in a state of continuous flux. What happened to them a year ago happened to a different person than the person they are now—the past has no bearing on present experience. (“I actually said that? I couldn’t have!”) In this view, Episodics are sober, disenchanted beings, alive to the principle of ceaseless change that drives human existence.

Contrast the picaresque novel with the bildungsroman—“novel of development”—a 19th century invention that still influences conventional novels today. In that highly structured genre—Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s “Apprenticeship” is the grandaddy of them all—the protagonist passes through one significant experience after another, suffering, learning and finally growing into the wise sum of the events he has passed through. Though you’d look in vain on for a bildungsroman nowadays, just about every work of contemporary fiction, from Jhumpa Lahiri to Ian McEwan, depends upon characters whose lives are meaningful patterns of behavior—characters who are themselves stories within a larger tale. The attempts of modernist and postmodernist fiction to use Episodic tricks of the trade—fragmentation, montage, stream-of-consciousness—to drive Narratives into the hills have utterly failed.

Siegel sees the definitive turning point in the juggling between these two poles to be 2001—just after 9/11, not coincidentally—and points most notably to Jonathan Franzen’s mega hit, The Corrections, as the signatory narrative work. Other contemporary writers are also referenced including Claire Messud, Joseph O’Neill and Elizabeth Strout.

Siegel’s final view is expressed quite directly:

It does seem that the narrative view of life seems to have little to do with life itself. It’s hardly a coincidence that the world’s great stories were written in epochs when illness and disease were rife, life spans were shorter, and people were surrounded by the dead and the dying. Now that we have protected and extended life to an unprecedented degree, perhaps we can dispense with narrative’s protective shield and open ourselves more honestly to life’s inherent discontinuity. Like the stoics of yore, we might even find that life, if we are lucky enough to live it out to its fullest portion, is easier to bid farewell to if it signifies nothing but the beauty and the miracle of being alive, minute by meaningless minute.

But does that final assessment seem a bit too pat? Whoa, Nelly. From where I sit, these distinctions are not so simple. What about the both/and? I’m thnking about examples of an episodic narrative, or a narrated episodic. I don’t see this as an either/or. One caveat: I haven’t had a chance to read Strawson’s essay. More research needed.


I was so pleased to hear that Marilynne Robinson won the Orange Prize for her latest novel, Home. I have been a fan since a friend lent me Housekeeping many years ago. What a writer, and what a book. Published in 1980, Housekeeping was Robinson’s sole novel (she did publish two books of essays which were intelligent, a bit quirky and not nearly as compelling as her fiction) until she released Gilead in 2004. Home followed close upon, by Robinson standards anyway.

Here’s the report from the Guardian:

Perhaps the surprise was that there was no surprise. This year’s Orange prize for the best novel written by a woman was last night won by a writer regarded by some as one of the greatest of living novelists: Marilynne Robinson.

Fi Glover, the broadcaster who chaired this year’s judging panel, admitted the decision had been straightforward and unanimous. Home, Robinson’s beautifully crafted exploration of family relationships and redemption, was the easy winner from the six shortlisted books, she said. “All of the judges brought a couple of books to the table which they thought were definitely the contenders and Home was in all of our choices. We were in agreement.”

Glover said she had now read Home three times and it got better, more deep and profound, each time. “It does that wonderful thing of describing life that you almost knew about but never managed to put your finger on.”

Robinson, whose day job is teaching creative writing in Iowa City, was one of three American writers shortlisted and received her award, together with a £30,000 cheque, at a ceremony in London’s Royal Festival Hall.

Home is only Robinson’s third novel since her debut in 1980 with Housekeeping. That novel started slowly in terms of sales and popularity but soon became huge and it is now regarded as a modern classic. It was made into a film by Bill Forsyth and, some years later, it was in the Observer’s list of the top 100 novels of all time.

Readers were desperate for more but Robinson did not return to fiction for 24 years, winning a Pullitzer prize for Gilead five years ago. In between she wrote a polemical book about the British nuclear industry and a book of essays on such unfashionable subjects as theology and Calvinism. In Home, Robinson revisits characters she wrote about in Gilead and tells the story of the return of a black sheep, Jack, to the family fold. For a lot of the novel, not much happens – but that is one of its joys.

The victory will mean a sales spike for Robinson and the result has been welcomed by bookshops. Jonathan Ruppin, of Foyles, said: “Robinson is simply one of the outstanding prose stylists of recent years; she will undoubtedly come to be seen as essential as Nabokov or Conrad. In picking this as this year’s winner, the judges have made a real statement about lyrical power of fiction, beyond its basic function to tell stories.”


Add fairytales to the list of things that may not be as old as you may have assumed. The argument made below claims that the origins of this material is more accurately traced to the print tradition than the oral one.

Understandably this thesis has been controversial. Folklorists, ethnologists and mythologists have strong opinions about what is culturally invariant, about archetypes and universal story lines. Like most issues that rely on interpretation rather than facts, this is one that can never be determined definitively. The safe and more reasonable answer is a blended one.

The report below is by Alison Flood in the Guardian:

In the 19th century, Scottish author and clergyman George Macdonald said that he “should as soon think of describing the abstract human face” as attempting to describe a fairy tale. More than 100 years later, scholars are still disputing their origins, with the latest clash arising over a new claim that, far from being passed down through an oral tradition, fairy tales actually have their history in print.

Ruth B Bottigheimer, a professor at Stony Brook University in New York, disputes the idea that fairy tales were handed down orally through generations until “19th and 20th-century folklorists hearkened to peasants’ words” and they were transformed into literature by the likes of the Brothers Grimm. “It has been said so often that the folk invented and disseminated fairy tales that this assumption has become an unquestioned proposition. It may therefore surprise readers that folk invention and transmission of fairy tales has no basis in verifiable fact,” she writes in her new book, Fairy Tales: A New History. “Literary analysis undermines it, literary history rejects it, social history repudiates it, and publishing history (whether of manuscripts or of books) contradicts it.”

She points to mid-16th century Venice as the starting point for a specific kind of fairy tale, the “rise” tale or Cinderella story, in which “poverty through magic leads to marriage and then money”, arguing that the specific economic conditions and legal restrictions of the area and age gave rise to the format, today the most popular kind of fairy tale. Laws at the time forbade marriage between a noble and a commoner, while the region was also in the middle of an economic downturn.


“This was a mental environment that would have been receptive to a new kind of story line, one in which magic facilitated a poor person’s ascent to wealth. This was also the age in which stories that we can identify as rise fairy tales first appear,” writes Bottigheimer. “The elements that make up the fairy tale genre were all in place before the 1550s: the hallmarks of fairy tales – magic objects and sudden acquisitions of wealth – were not new in themselves. What was different was that rise fairy tales built in the kinds of generalised hopes for an improvement in their lives specific to the burgeoning populations of upward striving young men and women in early modern cities.”

Bottigheimer believes the “rise” genre was invented by Straparola, author of the circa 1550 collection Le piacevoli notti (Pleasant Nights), which contains the earliest known version of Costantino Fortunato (Puss in Boots). “You just don’t get that story before the 1550s,” she said of the “rise” tale in an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education. It “beggars belief”, she added, that if there were existing oral templates for the “rise” tale before this time, they wouldn’t have been recorded. “It seemed to me that if I wasn’t seeing any stories like this, it was because there weren’t any stories like this.”

Her book goes on to suggest how “rise” tales could have passed from Straparola – whose collection sold well in Italy – to France, to Germany and eventually to the Brothers Grimm, emphasising the central role of print in the journey. But her views haven’t been received well by some of her fellow folklorists, according to the CHE, which reports a “hue and cry” at a meeting in Milwaukee in 2006, and an audience “up in arms against her” in Estonia in 2005. “She’s turning things upside down. Oral tradition is one of the fundamental tenets of folklore, and here she comes to upset it, and that is one of the reasons we reacted that way to her paper and her book,” Dan Ben-Amos, the University of Pennsylvania’s folklorist, told the CHE.

Other academics, however, suggest that the belief in an oral tradition owes a lot to nostalgic Victorian folklorists equating orality with authenticity, while still others say it is wrong to divide the complex history of fairy tales into either oral or literary, claiming they are likely to have had a multitude of sources.

The Princess and the Goblin

George Macdonald, author of At the Back of the North Wind and The Princess and the Goblin, perhaps still puts it best, over 100 years on. “Were I asked, what is a fairytale? I should reply, Read Undine: that is a fairytale; then read this and that as well, and you will see what is a fairytale. Were I further begged to describe the fairytale, or define what it is, I would make answer, that I should as soon think of describing the abstract human face, or stating what must go to constitute a human being. A fairytale is just a fairytale, as a face is just a face; and of all fairytales I know, I think Undine the most beautiful.”