June 28th, 2013 / 11:28 pm
Craft Notes


As I get older, sicker, and more beset with claims on my attention, I find myself dreaming up simple rules for gracefully consuming my way through the world. As a person reliant on deeply industrialized and entangled societies for money, food, medicine and entertainment, I find that simple tricks help me feel sane. Heuristics are useful when navigating complex systems, be it 21st century America or your personal ethics.

The following rules of thumb might help if you feel overwhelmed with the incomprehensible amount of interesting culture to eat and be eaten by. Because books are the media that I chase and covet the most, I’ll use them here. Altering the immortal words of Gale: “So many books, so little time.”

1. When in doubt, don’t read it.
Err on the side of omission. You might die tomorrow—hell, you might die tonight—and wouldn’t you regret it if you slogged through fifty more pages of some book that just feels serviceable?

2. If the author’s a bigot, don’t read it.
This applies to Mein Kampf all the way down to that writer that said “I just can’t fuck any more NYU students with Jim Morrison posters on their wall.” With so much potentially transcendent literature written by not-immediately-obvious-assholes just waiting in libraries and in book stores, feel free to judge with severe intolerance.

3. If it’s new, don’t read it.
Like evolution, time is a critic without aim, but there’s a lot of literature that has been retold, copied, salvaged and painfully rebuilt because it’s wildly powerful or innovative to most people that engage it. The newer the book you’re reading, the more likely it’ll be buried by the sands of time.* Lately, I’ve been reading mostly ancient literature and looming works from a few centuries ago, and I’m having trouble returning to contemporary stuff. But this difficulty feels nice.

4. If it’s news, don’t read it.
The really important stuff will become hard to avoid, anyway, so no need to bury yourself in the miasma of information that’ll soon be the noise of history.

5. If it’s billed as “theory”, don’t read it.
Like all of these loose rules, there are so many exceptions. But a lot of works of theory that I’ve read exist solely up their own assholes, which would be fine if they felt fun or stimulating. But so much theory—so much of everything, according to Sturgeon’s Law—is a waste of time if you’re looking for empiricism or induction or beauty or simple, practical philosophy. In the day and age of fat-tailed distribution, I’d go one further on Sturgeon and say that 99% of everything is crap. Some days this idea feels liberating, some days it’s doom.

6. If it’s described as a “meditation on memory and loss”, or something similar, don’t read it.
Again: exceptions!

7. If it’s mostly well-reviewed, don’t read it.
If most people think it’s pretty good, that means it’s forgettable. I find myself rereading the books that are loved by a small group of people and hated—or dismissed—by everyone else. Don’t know why, but again: it feels right. Plus it gives me something to push against.

8. If you’re fifty pages in and you’re bored, don’t read it.
Books can be put down, sold back, given away. It feels great to relieve your attention of a bit of its future bondage.

And now the big and obvious additives:

A. If your friend wrote it, read it.
A recurring anxiety: I die before I’ve read my friends’ books, before telling them how great they are, before thanking them.

B. If you can’t help yourself, read it.
Curiosity is the slave driver.

These rules have helped me feel less overwhelmed and wasteful, but like any codified principles, please dismiss them at whim.

Watch out for paper cuts, and good luck.

* Please use this as an excuse to not read my books, if you’re looking for one.

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  1. A D Jameson

      I’m sorry, Ken, I like you, but these are goddamn stupid rules.

  2. A D Jameson

      People should read whatever they want, whenever they want, with GREAT CURIOSITY and a TOTAL DISREGARD FOR AUTHORITY. At all times.

      Including your authority, and my authority, and any authority. ALL authority. AT ALL TIMES.

  3. Grant Maierhofer

      thank you

  4. Ken Baumann

      Not calling myself an authority here, am I?

      How do you decide what to read?

      Do you think these rules are stupid or offensive? Or both?

  5. A D Jameson

      See below! And, yes, you do specify “loose.” I appreciate that!

  6. A D Jameson

      I simply believe in TOTAL CURIOSITY AT ALL TIMES. Read anything, anywhere, at all times, and never believe anyone who tells you you shouldn’t read anything.

  7. Ken Baumann

      Do you practice this principle? Do you often read stuff that your friends/peers dismiss?

  8. A D Jameson

      P.S. I “liked” this post and I like you, just very strongly disagree with any rules for reading anything. And want to add that as soon as anyone finds their reading habits ossifying they should CHANGE THEIR READING HABITS.

      (This ALL CAPS thing, I stole it from MORRISSEY, who stole it from OSCAR WILDE. LITERATURE WANTS TO BE FREE.)

  9. A D Jameson

      Oh, yeah, totally!

  10. A D Jameson

      I’ll read fucking anything!

  11. A D Jameson

      I shouldn’t have said “stupid.” I’m sorry for that. I meant more that I disagree. But I appreciate your posting this; I appreciate where your coming from.

  12. Ken Baumann

      But you don’t, obviously. There are limits to human attention. How do you circumscribe your attention?

      I respect many artists that have read widely, yes, but that have decided to ignore much more culture than they attend to, as we necessarily must.

      Do you read a lot of news, well-reviewed literature, new literature, and theory?

  13. Ken Baumann

      Don’t apologize for my sake. But calling something stupid is unavoidable; dismissal is psychologically/neurologically necessary. Nobody engages every cultural input. I thought about this, and how I circumscribe my attention, then wrote this post.

  14. A D Jameson

      You’re absolutely right. There are limits. There are always limits. But we should always INTERROGATE and QUESTION those limits.

      I think we’re probably in agreement, after a fashion.

      I think the only thing we can do is to challenge whatever we think is true. And then challenge it again. And then again. There is never any end to that challenging.

      As for whether I will read new, well-received literature/theory/etc., I will read ANYTHING and EVERYTHING. I know no other way to express it. Of course, time and space and material concerns impose limits. But they are the limits. I will not accept other limits. I will think for myself, and not let others tell me what and how to think. (And I include myself in those others, because I am often an other.)

      Nietszche! Total revolution!

  15. Ken Baumann

      It’s a nice belief that’s impossible to practice.

  16. A D Jameson

      No, no one ever does. I’ve often said, “No one has any idea how vast the culture is.”

      Tonight I went to a house party. Then I walked home, stopping at a bar. And along the way, I passed all these Hispanic bars, where they were playing all this Hispanic music I know nothing about.

      So many things are going on all the time all around us, and I think that the only honest reaction is, “I have no idea what the hell is going on!” To keep ourselves sane, we impose a kind of control, and try to dictate the world to our tastes. But who are we? Better, I think, to just say, “Everything I know is in question, and I am a being without any absolute form. I will admit that all I know is that I don’t know an anything for certain. I will engage the world with total curiosity.”

      I haven’t bought or read Solip yet. I feel bad about that. I apologize.

  17. Ken Baumann

      That sounds good and utopist, but I’d like you to mention examples of omission in your revolutionary/total curiosity, if you’re up for it. Because I think induction’s more interesting than deduction, and less politically & morally catastrophic.

      Also: you run on heuristics, and so do I. We all do. Nature of perception, and all that. I dig the Nietzschean spirit, but I’m curious about habits and behavior.

  18. A D Jameson

      I just ordered your book. Looking forward to reading it! Night & much peace & love, Adam

  19. Guest

      “As I get older…”….Aren’t you like 23? I don’t know what to make of this post, other than to say you sound like the embittered, middle-aged protagonist in Tobias Wolf’s “Bullet in the Brain.”

  20. Guest

      Though I do agree with #8. Nothing wrong with this rule. You can usually tell if a book’s worth reading after the first few pages. This rule is definitely helpful when reading recent indie titles everyone hypes to death on FB, Twitter, and here…until you open the book and are like, “huh–what? this if the guy/gal whose supposed to be some superb stylist?”

  21. Guest

      *who is / *is Figures!

  22. Rauan Klassnik

      rules are great. to make. and to break.

  23. Chad Morgan

      “If the author’s a bigot, don’t read it.” There goes all my Faulkner, O’Connor, Capote & McCullers. Not to mention all my Melville, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, et cetera, et cetera…

  24. JosephYoung

      nah. i mean, yeah and nah. good to have preferences, great to be surprised.

  25. Guest

      Bigot is a pretty strong word for most of these writers you’ve listed. Faulkner’s views on race were well ahead of their time and highly sophisticated.

  26. Rauan Klassnik

      (and Jack London, etc, etc)… the “bigot” rule’s problematic.. but, then again, this set of “rules” is very bigoted… Ken was serious but playin’ too it seems

  27. mimi

      this asks the bigger question of separating the artist from the art – can i despise roman polanski’s behavior but love his movies?

  28. Guest

      It’s too problematic to associate an author’s bigoted characters and fictional language with himself. And even though bigoted characters and racial epithets exist in the work of FOC, Faulkner, and Twain, the context is often ironic and anti-racist.

  29. jereme_dean

      Your absolute is just as much a rule as Ken’s proposal.

  30. jereme_dean

      I don’t think the artist should be separated from his art. Doing so seems silly to me.

  31. Guest

      I don’t think that’s the issue though, more than people misreading a text, like people who would accuse Mark Twain of being a full-fledged racist because of the way he writes Jim and uses “nigger” 200 times, when the whole point of the book is to critique racism and antebellum society.

  32. jereme_dean

      I agree with most of this.

      The bigot rule I think is wrong. An author who is ostensibly an asshole will likely have an interesting or unique perspective, especially during our time of constant chill vibes.

      The other rule I feel whatevers about is the whole friends thing. My issue is more about how a person defines a “friend.” The 21st century has blurred language and friend can now indicate some people I talk to on the facebook, which is absurd.

      Friendship isn’t obtained easily.

      Plus reading a book out of duty is disingenuous (to me). If that’s your only reason, skim a couple chapters, feign approval and move on.

      I liked these rules. I’ve known Ken for a while and he’s always been nice to a fault. Hearing him speak negatively about something he didn’t like was unheard of a few years ago.

      This post makes me feel hopeful about the future.

  33. A D Jameson

      The difference is that I believe in critically engaging with everything to the fullest extent possible, not making up rules that allow one to ignore things. And my “absolute” includes the means for its own critique. It’s a dialectic, not dogma.

  34. Nathan Goldman

      “When in doubt, don’t read it.”

      How, then, could you ever expand your taste or thought? I get the carpe diem thing, but a person is not born knowing what kind of art he or she will like in ten years or tomorrow. Books about which I had doubts that I am very, very glad I read: Critique of Pure Reason, Sixty Stories, White Noise, Please Don’t Be Upset.

      “If you’re fifty pages in and you’re bored, don’t read it.”

      Certainly there’s no need to finish things, but again, I think this “rule” throws out a lot that might be very worth reading.

      “If the author’s a bigot, don’t read it.”
      “If it’s new, don’t read it.”

      So much of the great literature of the past thousands of years was written by racists, sexists, homophobes, etc. that I think these two rules nearly contradict each other. Regarding the latter: there’s validity to your argument, but this “rule” would make you a very bad literary citizen of today.

      “If you can’t help yourself, read it.”

      Yes yes yes!

  35. M. Kitchell

      this doesn’t strike me as a problem

  36. Ken Baumann

      The past is a foreign country, and I try to treat shifting ideologies with mild generosity. That said, if someone was explicitly and unabashedly considered a bigot in their time, I’m less likely to pick up their work—more so if they wrote philosophy. In other words, I try to let how deeply dead an author is lessen my ethical judgement of them.

      But for living breathing assholes, I think it’s okay to dismiss them wholesale. But again, curiosity is the slave driver (see B above).

      When I say friend I mean friendship that’s been tested & strengthened. You feel me.


  37. Ken Baumann

      But your curiosity won out with Kant, DeLillo, etc., right? Good.

      I don’t disagree with you on the hidden (and potentially missed) potential of a book that you put down after the 50p boredom test. But most of the definitive events in my life have been accidental—I didn’t orchestrate them beyond following momentary desires and opportunities—so I don’t sweat missing out on something cultural. There will be more.

      I’d like to not care about feeling like a literary citizen, and the new rule helps me to not care about invisible bodies.

      Again: all rules are implicit (in your head) and meant to be broken. But I’ve been sticking to these lately.

  38. Ken Baumann

      Rauan! xo, first off.

      Second: I’m adding the word “problematic” (when it’s couched in the culture house) to my shit list. It bugs me.

      But yes, I agree! It’s a tough rule. I often break it. Also, see my recent response to Jereme.

  39. Ken Baumann

      Again: nice to believe that and to say so in a public forum, but impossible to practice.

  40. Rauan Klassnik

      my shit list’s longer than yours xoxoxoxo or maybe it isn’t .. but, whatever, let’s air our shit, man

  41. Rauan Klassnik

      too much love here, guys, just too much love

  42. Nathan Goldman

      Hey Ken, thanks for the response!

      You joke (I assume?) about people using the rule as an excuse to not read your work, but don’t you publish (at least in part) wanting to be read? I think the need to stay on track with the literary zeitgeist can be exhausting and counterproductive, and newer work has not been vetted to the same degree, but it seems problematic to me to be a modern writer who avoids reading other modern writers, unless you truly don’t care whether anyone reads your work.

      I take you to be suggesting that one shouldn’t sweat “missing out on things,” and I agree with that. Also, I really appreciate this post, because it’s definitely true that there are limits to our attention, and I admire the laying out of principles to guide, as you call it, the circumscription. I certainly don’t have any such firm principles, and it no doubt causes me anxiety and to fail to finish books I want to finish.

  43. A D Jameson

      Well, sure. No one can read everything ever written—fudge, ya got me!

      But there’s a substantive difference between saying “I am willing to read anything” and “I am willing to read only X.”

      I think it’s a bad idea to say, “I am willing to read only X.” And beyond that, I think the X you’ve listed here are weak.

      Instead, I believe, in principle, in being willing to engage critically with anything and everything, regardless of how new it is, or how well reviewed it’s been, or whether the author makes statements I disagree with.

      That’s all. Cheers, Adam

  44. Nathan Goldman

      P.S. Sorry for saying “problematic”! Just saw your comment about that.

  45. Tim Jones-Yelvington

      isn’t it kind of just a difference btwn situational, impulsive and systematic decision-making? I dont design systems for making decisions, I go to the big bin of unread books in the back of our basement and grab whatever Im in the mood for.

  46. deadgod

      Rules for weeding-out-in-advance pretty much reflect what’s already gotten in to happy effect. What rewards a reader–what empowers that reader’s values–becomes a concrete particular bolstering that reader’s general approaching of writing: a unit of readerly habitus.

      I think one can make ‘challenging one’s taste and biases’ a criterion, a feeder-back into deciding what to read.

      But that self-contrariety is a) paradoxical (and so maybe too much effort for us lazy people), and b) a vehicle for undeserved self-congratulation (and so a self-dissolving fake criterion).

  47. deadgod

      Enigmatic images on the cover: effective criterion.

      (Those who deny that they’re easily manipulated: take a look at the covers on their shelves. Marketers salivate at independence from marketing.)

  48. deadgod

      Encyclopedism: impossible, foolish, doomed, embarrassing… irresistible.

  49. deadgod

      Ken’s question obtains: there must be some patterns in your reading choices that you can recognize and understand to be “rules” (‘pre-choice criteria for choosing’).

      Not that anyone HAS to explain what they think their “rules” are for choosing among the virtual infinitude of books to read, but that there are patterns that indicate (conscious or not) “rules”.

  50. A D Jameson

      You’re slipping between different meanings of the word “rules.” Ken’s usage is entirely prescriptive. Behavioral patterns are descriptive, contingent, adaptive. What’s more, I’m arguing for a spirit of inquiry that allows precisely for change. (The principle allows for self-reflection.)

      When I was ten, I didn’t read Donald Barthelme’s The Dead Father because I didn’t know who Donald Barthelme was, and possibly didn’t have access to a copy of The Dead Father (not sure). And I might not have possessed the grammar/vocabulary/cultural knowledge to read the novel. But later on, in college, I read it. My reading habits changed over time.

      But that’s a totally different set of affairs than saying, “I will not read any book that’s X.”

  51. Ken Baumann

      I see recommendations for dismissal, contingency and adaptation in my post.

      Are you anchoring on “rule” instead of the frequent modifiers that point toward flexibility?

      And again, if you’re willing to get specific, I’d love to know about your actual reading patterns and habits. Might they look less wildly diverse and egalitarian than you want them to/think they are? Because my reading habits are less stringent than this lest implies. Hence the room for dismissal, contingency and adaptation.

  52. Ken Baumann

      Never feel bad or apologize for not buying/reading something I wrote (for my sake).

  53. Ken Baumann

      Not joking on that count, no. I publish to be read, but I don’t hold it against anyone if my work doesn’t stoke or hold their interest. I consider my writing lesser than a huge body of literature, so if someone would rather go for something else, that makes me happy. I care that my work is available, but I don’t deeply fixate on my writing being sought out.

      And there are authors that come to mind that avoid reading much contemporary stuff, Nassim Taleb being my favorite (I tested most of these rules because I wanted to ape his logic for awhile/try it out). And philosophers, historians.

      Pleasure talking to you! And no problem on the problematic thing. My pet peeve to bear!

  54. Ken Baumann

      That’s how I feel about when I try to be so contradictory and taste-dissolving. I mean, self-dissolution is a good habit, but best practice intensely (otherwise you—YOU! pun intended—will go nuts).

      These rules rose out of years of mostly reading contemporary stuff, too. So maybe I’m just in the icky side of said oscillation.

  55. Ken Baumann

      Another nice thing about the Loeb classics, etc.

  56. Ken Baumann

      There’s a design in your impulsivity, even if it feels opaque. You agree?

  57. mimi

      the artist’s identity/history/behavior etc INFORMs my experience, sure (do i squirm a bit more watching N Kinski in Tess knowing RP directed her? yup)

      but is Tess a ‘worse’ movie because of RP’s history/behavior? no

      is RP’s history/behavior any more acceptable/forgivable for his having made art i consider ‘good’? no

  58. Guest487

      I agree, but “bigot” is a very strong word. A person can have prejudices and not be a bigot. Based on the historical documents available to us, there’s no evidence at all that most of these writers should be called racists, though I think there’s enough evidence to call Hemingway a sexist, even though gender scholars are now questioning that notion and making fascinating discoveries in both his personal and writing life that might suggest otherwise.

      (BTW, I mentioned race because Chad listed Southern writers who wrote about tricky racial subjects).

  59. Willis Plummer

      Who said I can’t fuck anymore NYU students?

  60. deadgod

      Wait: I don’t think I’m shuttling manipulatively between prescription and description.

      One makes choices, and those choices are a data set.

      One then looks ‘back’ at that set–a phenomenon one describes to oneself–as evidence of a prescriptive regularity.

      ‘I read a lot of sci-fi last year, mostly of the such-and-such kind.’ –that’s a description. But it describes a pattern that indicates a “rule” (or “rules”).

      Fair enough that the pattern itself isn’t the “rules”; I said that carelessly. But I think Ken’s point is strong: the choices one makes are, as we say, along certain lines. Those lines are evidence of inward (as well as social, cultural, historical) government.

      A purely free taking up of the next book that falls into one’s hands, again and again and again, with no projection of interest or will or desire onto deciding to read each book… I don’t see how this kind of randomness is humanly possible.

  61. deadgod

      Ha ha — with the old Penguins, too.

      But the Loebs, given that they’re half in Greek or Latin, are pretty limited in their advertiseability. I mean, what’s the point of buying the two Loeb Virgils when you can get Virgil just in English at half as many pages? unless you want the Latin alongside a rough crib? The available all-English Virgils, of course, have more-or-less groovy pictures on their covers, and you can bet that their publishers have empirical reasons for believing that each cover makes that edition more attractive to buyers (even if those publishers are empirically led astray). If some other publisher made a series of Greek/Latin translations available in the Loeb way–competed with Loeb directly–, Loeb would have to decide whether to stick with the green/red little hardcovers, with the advantage of brand recognition/loyalty, or to put images promising some desirable sense of the contents on the covers.

  62. Sidney Gray

      On Ken vs A D:

      I think it’s not Crazy Hard to balance a personal set of rules or guidelines or moral & aesthetic values or self knowledge about your preferences or your prior experiences with the desire to be “open” to anything and everything (celebrating all people and all art, the keeping yourself available for unexpected discoveries & transformations):

      I have a similar (although very different in the specifics) set of rules that shapes about 60-80% of what I read–for the remaining 20-40% I try to pick randomly in all kinds of different ways: hands into piles at bookstores, interesting covers, a push from a friend, a spontaneous purchase from a press I don’t know. I could imagine doing that for 100% of books instead of maybe 20% of books though I don’t personally feel the need to do so, and I think I gain a lot through mindful, intentional, targeted reading the majority of the time.

      But yeah: exploration is often its own reward. If we didn’t dip into possibly undesirable valleys every now and again we might never get off of our cozy and familiar hills to try to climb up other interesting, higher hills–we’d miss all kinds of beautiful vantage points (heck, even beautiful valleys). But I don’t eat at a different restaurant every single night out and I often cook meals that I know I’ll like beforehand. Balance?

      I have preferences about music genres.

      I don’t think any of this seems paradoxical.


  63. Ken Baumann

      Well put. Thank you.

  64. Ken Baumann

      He can be ferreted out.

  65. alanrossi

      yeah, that’s it. mine is like:

      probably will read things i’m intuitively drawn to.

      probably will read things that some people i respect recommend.

      probably will try to give a few very popular, very mainstream books a try every year.

      probably won’t read certain genres, but maybe will.

      probably will try to read some nonfiction, either like personal memoirs or essays on lit or something scientific, etc.

      probably will read a lot of certain buddhism.

      probably will quit many books and not feel to bad about that.

      probably will force myself to finish a few books that i think are “bad” or “dumb.”

      probably will consciously seek out books from other countries.

      i don’t know. i feel like over time you know what your thing is and then you try to cultivate your thing and also expand and be willing to change your thing (and by thing, i mean penis).

  66. mimi

      i don’t consider faulkner, o’connor, capote, mccullers, hemingway, fitzgerald or melville ‘bigots’ or ‘racists’ – didn’t mean to imply so

  67. Guest487

      Gotcha. I was going off what Chad wrote. I just think these terms are important when discussing race and gender. I hope AD Wannabe Alpha Dog Jameson approves this particular response to your post as non-trollish and productive.

  68. Guest487

      Ken, first of all, I apologize for impersonating you that one time several months ago. I hope you know that it was never my intention to do anything other than write that one ironic joke post and that I considered you a public figure and assumed it would be read easily as satire, and that any other posts under that name were unintentional.

      I also agree with you re: problematic. It’s a dumb, academic-sounding word and I should’ve used something better in that spot.

  69. Trey

      oh you

  70. jereme_dean

      Maybe one day you can jump in our bed too.

  71. Matt Rowan

      Yes, I must agree with guest and especially take issue with Herman Melville in there, who purposefully used peoples’ impressions of natives and whatnot in a satirical way. He was doing much with stereotypes, and certainly before it was “cool.” What’s more, he has a whole thing in “The Confidence Man” about how it’s possible Shakespeare was subverting racial ideas in his works, in a way that might well have been too hard for most of his contemporaries to glean. Benefit of hindsight. Melville rules. Don’t be so fast and loose with the “bigot” charge, is all.

  72. Matt Rowan

      Because I’m a rebel I will not be doing any of the things you tell me to do, Ken. Not a one. Or, I’ll do them, but not because you told me to do them.

  73. mimi

      productive – yes

      trollish – never entered my mind

      (also, i have no idea who you are)

      : )

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  75. Chad Morgan

      Faulkner’s views may have been ahead of their (by “their” I assume you mean “his”) time, but using that as a evidence of a supposed non-bigoted nature functions to prohibit by proxy any argument about Faulkner re: his views on race within the context of a contemporary decalogue. Perhaps when measured against other gentleman of a very recently post-Antebellum south Faulkner might be less of a bigot, but what happens when you hold him up against the very stringent rules to which we expect the adherence of today’s public figures?

      In any case, we shouldn’t, as I suspect is happening in this thread (perhaps because I included (but did not limit myself to) a few southern writers on my list), conflate “bigotry” with “racism,” for they are not the same thing. Because it would be impossible for us all to decide on a definition of what a racist is, let’s look at bigot:

      From merriam-webster.com:

      bigot: a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially : one who regards or treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance

      It’s an interesting definition, a two-parter, even! Based on the first part, it would seem that “bigotry” isn’t so much measured in the quality of a person’s opinions re: insert racial or ethnic group of choice, or at least not only, but also in the fervor of their devotion to those opinions or prejudices. Not just, Does so-and-so think Group A is inferior to Group B, but, rather, How badly does so-and-so think Group A is inferior to Group B? Moreover, how susceptible (or not) is so-and-so to having their opinions changed?

      The second part, the qualifier, (” EPSECIALLY one who regards OR treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance”) is trickier, mostly because it forces us to define for practical use other abstracts, namely “hatred” and “intolerance,” but even so, the use of the verb “to regard” is interesting, for it would seem that a person can be a bigot in a completely passive manner. I can simply regard a given demographic with hatred – I don’t even have to do anything about my hatred – and I can be a bigot.

      Which was my point to begin with. While I respect your prerogative to disagree with me re: whether Faulkner or Melville or any other writer is a bigot, as far as my understanding and the understanding of quite a lot of people is concerned, he was, many of them were. I stand by that. However, that belief has not kept me from reading their work. Because bigotry is such an umbrella term, to apply it as a deterrent to interacting with any piece of art is silly.

  76. Guest487

      Yes, I acknowledge the absurdity of the rule. We both agree that Baumman’s trivialization of bigotry isn’t worth debating and is easily dismissed. According to him, bigotry runs from Nazism to hating chicks at NYU with Jim Morrison posters on their walls (I fail to see how anyone can be a bigot for hating Jim Morrison, the most overrated musician in American music history, a guy who wrote lines like, “the snake is the lake”–or something like that–don’t ask me to look it up because I trashed my Doors CDs the same day I donated my Army jacket and dogeared copy of On The Road to Goodwill on my 21st birthday).

      Anyway, I don’t see any specific evidence in your post that supports this: “when measured against other gentleman of a very recently post-Antebellum south Faulkner might be less of a bigot, but what happens when you hold him up against the very stringent rules to which we expect the adherence of today’s public figures?”

      I don’t know, honestly, because you’ve presented nothing about his person, other than pointing out that he lived in a different time period. If you’re going for the “he was a man of his time” argument and implying that everyone like him during that time would be considered a bigot by today’s standards, then I think yours is a dangerously relativist position and one that renders our dialogue dead. How can I respond if your definition of bigot is to simply judge all people from the past by today’s standards?

      Since no specific evidence of his public life has been presented, I don’t feel comfortable slapping the bigot label on the same man who wrote “Absalom, Absalom”–have you read it? have you read Charles Bon’s character?–one of the single greatest critiques of race and the one-drop rule in literary history, a novel that obliterates antebellum mythology that was written during Jim Crow. While I understand that the author and his work are not the same, It’s difficult to imagine a bigot writing that book, because it’s so deeply saturated with innovative anti-racist critiques that would be extremely unlikely to appear in the work of a bigot.

  77. Chad Morgan

      If we’re separating art from the artist, it makes as little sense to say “He’s not a bigot because he wrote this” as it is to say “he is a bigot because he wrote this.” You’re asking me to present a real life circumstance in which Faulkner displayed bigotry, yet your defense for his views of racial harmony is a novel that he wrote. “I don’t know,” you write, “honestly, because you’ve presented nothing about his person.” Neither have you.

      Furthermore, why do you insist upon situating bigotry within a purely racial strata? Even if his views on race weren’t in anyway bigoted, that does little to address other areas in which he (or anyone, which is also important; you as well seem insistent on applying this conversation solely to Faulkner) might have harbored bigoted ideals.

  78. Guest487

      Actually, I don’t buy into the “author” as separate from his art in its most rigid sense, and I think people who do do so out of convenience because it’s much easier to pretend like an author is never responsible for what he writes, that what he writes is all fairy dust filtered through an other-worldly muse. I prefer to view intentional fallacy as a necessary reaction against the cruder forms of biographical criticism, not an excuse for the pendulum to swing too far in the other direction to the point where we argue that the author is literally dead or never in control, that his brain is somehow not part of the artistic process.

      Regardless, we are working from such a ridiculous starting point (e.g, KB’s silly rule that triggered our discussion) that I don’t see this discussion going anywhere. You think Faulkner is a bigot. I don’t. But the important thing is, that won’t stop either us from reading his work. Thanks for the response.

      ETA–I mentioned race because Faulkner is considered by critics to be a pioneer in that area. Yes, I made that assumption myself based on this fact, and you are correct to point out that an analysis of his supposed bigotry should not begin & w/ race.

  79. deadgod

      I agree that following that rule dogmatically would rule out reading more than a few great writers.

      (Ken’s clear in saying that he doesn’t follow this–I’m guessing, almost any–rule dogmatically; it’s just a pattern in his reading that he recognizes and values enough consciously to maintain for the most part. I’m guessing he’s saying, with this rule, ‘don’t poison yourself’.)

      I share guest’s curiosity in why specifically you think Faulkner is a “bigot”. Using the Merriam-Webster online definition you quote, where and how does Faulkner ‘regard members of a group with particularized intolerance for that membership’?

      Perhaps you mean that Faulkner was bigoted in his personal life; evidence? But my guess is that, since Ken and you are talking about “authors”, you mean that Faulkner evinces bigotry in his writing. Evidence?

      Along with Matt (I think), I never got the feeling that Melville imposes (his) intolerance for a group on an individual character in his writing. Evidence?

      An example of Hemingway’s narrator’s intolerance for a group is easy to remember from Hemingway’s writing: Robert Cohn. Jake introduces Cohn to us in plainly–gladly–anti-Semitic terms. One could easily short-circuit one’s reception of Jake’s moral sensitivity–which is the story of the story–right near the beginning of the book by thinking, geez, who cares what this creep thinks about bravery and sex and love?

      Of course, one could think, deviously, that Hemingway’s filter is colored in this way to a larger effect: Hemingway has achieved a metacomment on anti-Semitism by having Jake indulge in anti-Jewish sneering. This, I doubt; there’s nothing else, in my view, about Jake’s self-understanding or understanding of anything other than Cohn’s Jewishness that makes me suspect at least that his judgements are reasonable (albeit debatable). I mean that Jake tells us directly, for example, that he virtually pimps out the woman he’s in love with–make of that what you will, buddy. He’s not a twistily unreliable narrator–or show me how.

      I prefer denial: as a reader, I just don’t relate Cohn’s being a dick and an exemplary dick to his being Jewish–even if that’s exactly a connection Hem wants me to make. Fuck that silly shit, Hem!: Cohn’s a dick in the way that there are dicks in every group of more than a few men. And more: The Sun Also Rises is, to me, a beautiful novel partly through Cohn’s successfully expressed smallness as a person. I choose–maybe stupidly–not to connect Cohn’s failure to his being Jewish, even though I think Hemingway probably was committed to that connection in writing the book.

      Let me add that Fitzgerald employs a diametrically opposed tactic: Nick makes a show (in a small way) of Tom Buchanan’s moral idiocy by subtly ridiculing Tom’s (openly racist) reading recommendation. Where is Fitzgerald’s bigotry expressed or implied?

  80. Chad Morgan

      You’ll come around to seeing things my way, eventually. They all do.

      No, I’m kidding. I agree that neither of us is going to change the other’s mind (nor was that my intention). Sincere thanks for the discussion, though.

  81. Neil Griffin

      The “If it’s new, don’t read it” rule is, to me, very problematic. This is the same sort of rule that B.R Myers follows whenever he’s having a wank on a new book. It’s surely limiting to only read the vetted books of yore that professors have lectured about for centuries. You could have made a positive rule here and just left it at “Classics are classics for a reason, so maybe you should read them”, but to exclude all contemporary fiction, especially when there are some interesting things going on, seems hypocritical for somebody putting out books (asterisk or no asterisk).