• From Literature to Biterature and The Edge of the Precipice

    By Peter Swirski
    Ed. by Paul Socken

    There is general agreement that the Internet is changing the way we think of literacy. It is also agreed that such change is inevitable. But the nature of the transformation we are now undergoing, and the balance of profit and loss, is harder to judge.

    In The Edge of the Precipice, Paul Socken, professor emeritus in the University of Waterloo’s French studies department, is primarily concerned with what we stand to lose. One point is worth flagging at the start: all of Socken’s contributors – who include Sven Birkerts, Alberto Manguel, Katia Grubisic, and Mark Kingwell – are academics (mainly professors of various literatures), writers, translators, or editors. That is, they are people with a vested interest in ensuring that people continue reading. And they know they are playing defence. Though the title is meant to contain some ambiguity, suggesting a leap of imagination into unknown worlds, the edge of a precipice is usually a place you don’t want to be: staring into an abyss.

    Since the future of reading is a topic that has been exercising commentators intensively for at least a decade, many of the arguments seem familiar. The virtues of solitary contemplation and reflection in an age of compulsory sharing and endless connectivity are canvassed, along with the way reading builds empathy, develops focus and concentration, and encourages critical thinking. All of this seems at least plausible, but hard evidence for the value of reading tends to come from a handful of studies boasting rather thin results. This leaves most of the essays here informed mainly by autobiography and anecdote, grounded in accounts of how the authors have found reading to be meaningful and transformative, both professionally and personally. They are testaments of faith in an atheistic age.

    All of this is preaching to the choir, since, if you’ve come this far (even in a review), you’re already counted among those who have made the choice to keep on reading. It’s less clear how convincing or persuasive these essays would seem to non-readers (whom we never hear from). One suspects not very. With this caveat in mind, The Edge of the Precipice is an impressive contribution to an important ongoing conversation, offering an inspiring and informative collection of well-expressed, non-technical perspectives on the importance of reading even as we stare into the bookless abyss.

    Of course, the way we read and write is already changing as we march further into the digital age. Might it also be the case that the very nature of authorship will change, too? In From Literature to Biterature, Peter Swirski, a professor of American literature, thinks this is inevitable, arguing that “at a certain point in the already foreseeable future, computers will be able to create works of literature in and of themselves.” To describe this new dispensation, Swirski borrows, from Stanislaw Lem, the term “biterature,” used to describe any writing of non-human origin. The authors of biterature are designated “computhors.”

    The philosophical, cultural, and aesthetic ramifications of Swirski’s thesis are fascinating and provocative. Biterature will call into question – both prospectively and retrospectively – traditional ways of thinking about art, genius, creativity, and imagination. These matters are covered in the first of the book’s three sections. From there, Swirski moves into a long second section on artificial intelligence and the philosophy of mind (the guiding figure here is Alan Turing), before concluding with some thoughts on the future of digital evolution. While composed in the same engaging (though sometimes overly glib) style, these parts of the book are only indirectly concerned with lit/biterature and tend to tread more familiar, if still intriguing, speculative ground.

    Brisk, playful, and paradoxical, Swirski presents the reader with a buffet of food for thought. Even bigger questions loom outside the terms of his discussion. For one thing, human history is full of sudden and severe cultural and technological reverses, which may set back or totally undermine some of Swirski’s prognostications. There is also the problem – which the author is well aware of – that any book like this can expect a limited shelf life. Not because its predicitons will turn out to be wrong, but because many of the questions will have changed. The death of the computhor may not lag far behind that of the author and the book.

    Review first published in Quill & Quire, September 2013.

  • Here on Earth

    Here on Earth
    Tim Flannery

    I find it remarkable that Tim Flannery is an optimist. Best known for his popular book on climate change, The Weather Makers, in Here on Earth he looks at a natural history of our planet and suggests two ways forward: a Darwinian war of all against all resulting in the extinction of the species through the exhaustion of natural resources (a hypothesis associated, not all that clearly to my mind, with the myth of Medea), or a more holistic approach based on Lovelock’s Gaia theory. Obviously Flannery prefers the latter, though he recognizes that the way forward will involve some significant shift in our dominant memes (or, as he chooses to spell it, mnemes). In order to change the way our economy operates we’re going to have to radically change our way of thinking. It’s hard to see that happening without a shock that will in all likelihood be mortal for our civilization anyway.

  • Feral

    By George Monbiot

    Despite a drumbeat of bad news in recent years — and the threat of much worse to come as we go sailing past any limit on atmospheric carbon considered safe — the environment continues to remain a low political priority.

    The lack of action shouldn’t come as a surprise, and is not just the result of there being no easy answers. The switch to a truly sustainable economy would not only involve a radical transformation of our current mass-production, mass-consumption way of life, it would almost certainly result in a significant reduction in our standard of living, making a green shift totally unacceptable to most of us.

    As a distinguished ex-U.S. president put it, the American way of life is “non-negotiable.”

    Nevertheless, the British journalist and environmentalist George Monbiot believes that “an ounce of hope is a more powerful stimulant than a ton of despair” and has some “positive environmentalism” to offer. In Feral he shies away from revolutionary calls to action and presents what is more of a general, guiding philosophy for change, a “vision of a better place” that goes under the name of “rewilding.”

    The inspiration for rewilding is what Monbiot describes as our current state of “ecological boredom”: a spiritual longing to reconnect with the natural world. This need to experience — or at least still believe in — an untamed, perhaps at times dangerous side of nature lies behind such cultural pheoneoma as survivalist-themed television shows, and even finds a hallucinatory expression in the peculiar British folk legend of big cats prowling the countryside, a bit of modern mythology that hints at “an unexpressed wish for lives wilder and fiercer than those we now lead.”

    Monbiot’s chapter on big-cat sightings is a fun bit of investigative journalism, but it helps drive home his point. He wants us to get out of our cars, cubicles, and classrooms and into our kayaks. We also need to consider re-introducing species into habitats where they might still be able to occupy a functional niche. Perhaps then “big cats will no longer need to be imagined” in England.

    The important thing to keep in mind about rewilding is that it is not about returning the environment to some original, primordial condition, or even about conserving what pristine “natural” environments we still have left (which may be bastard states of nature anyway). Instead, Monbiot advocates a hands-off, laissez-faire environmentalism: “Rewilding, to me, is about resisting the need to control nature and allowing it to find its own way.”

    The result of this will be to restore dynamic interactions and trophic diversity within different ecologies, protect endangered species and their habitats, and promote spiritual renewal. This last point is key: Monbiot’s rewilding is, finally, all about us. “If rewilding took place it would happen in order to meet human needs, not the needs of the ecosystem.” We will do it not to save the whales or the wolves but because we value a biologically rich environment.

    It is an interesting point of view, and Monbiot, who is a gifted nature writer, brings it to life in a globe-trotting series of essays that examine rewilding’s various applications.

    Important questions, however, remain. Chief among these is just how attractive an environment would be to most people. The concept of ecological boredom will ring true for some (especially those of us, a dwindling few, not born and raised in cities and conditioned to urban living), but it also makes the rewilding philosophy sound a bit like an advanced version of adventure tourism or Xtreme sport, with the neo-wild located in special environmental reserves.

    Put another way, a rewilded world may be a nice place to visit, but few of us would want to live there. At least not without the Internet and air conditioning.

    That said, there are no easy, one-size-fits-all solutions to the environmental problems we face. Monbiot does suggest solutions that can work in specific situations, and provides a way of thinking about these matters that has potential. And in his Introduction he notes that nowhere is new thinking needed more than in Canada: a “liberal, cultured, decent country” which has been “transformed into a thuggish petro-state.”

    Even if you don’t agree with that harsh analysis, the fact remains that we can, and should, be doing better.

    Review first published in the Toronto Star June 8, 2013.

  • The 40s: The Story of a Decade

    The 40s: The Story of a Decade
    Ed. by Henry Finder with Giles Harvey

    The 1940s were the before-and-after decade of the twentieth-century, and in this compilation of stories drawn from the pages of The New Yorker magazine the main fault line is evident: the Second World War. Before WW2 the New Yorker was not known as a heavyweight magazine, but under the stress of events and with a stable of writers constituting a who’s who of great essayists, critics, poets and short story writers, all under the editorship of Harold Ross, it was during these years that the magazine came of age. A collection of great writing and contemporary perspectives on the important events, fashions, art, and literature of the period, The 40s is a fascinating anthology filled with terrific material, much of which has remained surprisingly relevant into our own time.

  • Chris Eaton, a Biography

    By Chris Eaton

    The Internet didn’t invent narcissism, but it has had the effect of amplifying already powerful cultural trends taking us in that direction. Social networking, after all, has nothing social about it, but just provides a way for us to spend more time alone. The Internet is a mirror in which we endlessly examine ourselves, analyzing not just our own identities but the way others see (and evaluate) us. Or, taking the metaphor of the network, the Internet is a web that always has us at the center.

    Who, for example, hasn’t Googled him or herself? And when we find all of our name’s secret sharers, haven’t we wondered if there might be some mystical connection between us and that legion of virtual avatars and digital selves peeking out from behind the Cloud?

    Such a sense of connection is the inspiration for Chris Eaton’s Chris Eaton: A Biography. Notably, it is not an autobiography. Chris Eaton has little to do with the Chris Eaton who is a Canadian musician (recording as Rock Plaza Central), and currently one of this country’s best under-the-radar writers. Instead what we have here is a composite portrait of a number of Chris Eatons: men and women, gay and straight, young and old. After a while it becomes hard to tell some of them apart, but that’s the point. The life you’re reading about might be your own.

    The book’s loosely biographical structure follows Chris Eaton (all of them) from cradle to grave. But Eaton (the author) isn’t interested in telling a story in the traditional way, unless the tradition you’re referring to is that of the experimental “new novel” or magic realism. Within those terms of reference one can recognize a number of familiar elements, as we are constantly being sidetracked into rambling lists, historical background, flashy displays of esoteric research, and complex digressions dealing with obscure (and often imaginary) subcultures and secret societies.

    It’s information overload, and it poses the question of just how all of this information — and we are all bits of information now — adds up to a life: that is, something coherent and meaningful with a beginning, middle and end. Your Facebook and MySpace pages, your LinkedIn profile and Twitter account, your personal homepage and network of friends, your genealogy, cache of Google searches and other digital spoor . . . you can package all of this together into an identity that can be sold to advertisers, but the whole will be less than the sum of the parts, and has little relation to your life as you experience it.

    What is it about us that is un-Googleable and most real? Nothing that can be captured between the covers of a standard biography, but rather those spots of time and flights of the imagination that defy the dry realism of data. In rendering these, the author Chris Eaton, like the painter Chris Eaton (one of his subjects), has as his goal “not to depict just one moment in the life of a person, nor even the complete biography . . . but to capture life itself in its entirety.”

    All of this may make Chris Eaton (the book) sound a bit high-minded and programmatic, but that’s not how it plays. In the first place, the writing is alive with an energetic use of language and wit. Eaton’s similes are a particular delight. Take, for example, this description of a young Chris Eaton learning to swim:

    He was just a child, a spastic three-year-old with wet towels for feet, head like an overgrown ape’s paw, his legs like welded bows, too fast for his body, so they just bounced up and down like the limbs of some delicate, drunken ostrich.

    That’s perfect, both at capturing in a jumble of discordant analogies how an awkward three-year-old moves, and how those movements feel.

    What’s even more impressive, however, is the way Eaton puts heart into his personal brand of magic realism, a self-consciously literary genre all too often taken over by intellectual gamesmanship and superficial cleverness. One of the Chris Eatons we meet is an experimental musician who finds his work falling in-between the derivative pop platitudes that provide ear candy for the masses (“music for people who hated music”) and the “equally frustrating” efforts of the avant garde “who seemed to praise so-called ingenuity, but at the expense of true beauty or feeling.”

    This is the same non-commercial middle-ground Eaton’s fiction occupies: exciting and experimental writing with intelligence and soul.

    Review first published in the Toronto Star May 24, 2013.

  • The Murder Farm

    The Murder Farm
    Andrea Maria Schenkel

    The Murder Farm is a translation of a 2006 German novel that fictionalizes the true story of a sensational crime involving the slaughter of three generations of a farm family in 1920s Bavaria. In re-casting the tragic events, author Andrea Maria Schenkel provides her own solution to the unsolved murders while updating everything to the 1950s. That change of date lets her say something about post-War German guilt and also reflects our current low estimation of rural lifeways. The family farm has, in our own time, become a generic location of horror films. Rural routes are now the inbred, backward, and bloodthirty hinterland where regular city-folk only end up when they take a wrong turn off the highway. Schenkel helps herself to the stereotype, but puts an interesting spin on it by presenting the story in the form of a modernist collage that intercuts narrative sections with first-person accounts taken from interviews with witnesses. The result is a dark fairy tale wherein evil slides just beneath the surface of everyday reality like a half-forgotten but still disturbing dream.

  • Flight of the Eagle

    By Conrad Black

    To title a “strategic history of the United States” Flight of the Eagle gives most if not all of the game away. This will be a tale of majestic rise, albeit with some dips and flutterings, and not an acidic Chomskyan critique. In the end, we can expect to see the United States standing alone as “incomparably the greatest and most successful country there has ever been.”

    To which one has to ask “greatest and most successful at what, exactly?” The United States does not sit at the top the U.N. Human Development Index rankings of the best countries in the world to live in (most recently that was Norway). Its citizens don’t self-survey as the happiest, and we know they are far from the healthiest. Inequality is high, and rising, with a lot of people not doing very well at all.

    Social welfare, however, is not what Conrad Black is talking about (or, I imagine, something he is much interested in). For Black the measure of America’s greatness is its power: the way it has forged a vast global empire backed by an unstoppable military machine and a huge economy that consumes most of what the world produces.

    The question of how the United States came to so dominate the world is one that is being asked a lot these days, a parlour game for pundits equalled in popularity only by the debate over the indispensible nation’s imperial decline. In general, the tendency has been to focus on impersonal forces like the blessings of geography and the evolution of enlightened political institutions. Black, however, true to his calling as a biographer, is more interested in America’s great men (they are all men) and their visions of national destiny.

    This poses a bit of a problem. Henry Adams, one of America’s finest historians, looked back on his own monumental account of the Jefferson and Madison administrations and thought of his subjects as “mere grasshoppers kicking and gesticulating on the Mississippi River,” with “no possibility of reconciling their theories with their acts . . . They were carried along on a stream which floated them, after a fashion, without much regard to themselves.”

    Great men or grasshoppers? When writing a book that claims as its subject “the strategic direction and management of the United States” one is making a claim for the importance of individuals and their conscious planning of political affairs. But Black has Adams looking over his shoulder, and never seems entirely confident about how important such plans were to the eagle’s flight. On occasion he even admits as much:

    American history has been like a bouncing (American) football, in unpredictable directions, dependent again and again on indispensable and often unlikely individuals, elevated improbably. Beyond its natural resources and its Constitution, few Americans could explain why the United States has been such a felicitous country, but almost all of them sense that it has been.

    In following the bouncing ball of American history, and keeping the focus mainly on presidential politics, Black has to stretch the notion of strategy rather thin in understanding the reasons for America’s felicity. For example: was kicking the can of slavery down the road for so long really a strategy for ensuring the ultimate triumph of the North and the salvation of the Union? At times Black describes it as such, but it’s unclear whose strategy it was, or if it was really just the fortuitous workings of providence.

    Then again, the U.S. is also described as “sleepwalking toward the edge of a cliff” in the years before the Civil War, and Lincoln is perhaps the prime example of an “unlikely individual, elevated improbably.” Were men directing events, or did events direct the men?

    It’s worth asking questions like these because Flight of the Eagle is frustratingly short on conclusions to be drawn from its sweeping survey. As it skims along through a rapid listing of significant names and dates there are only a handful of breaks for brief summaries, but even in these Black doesn’t seem to have any larger point to make. Nor is there much in the way of original analysis. The relatively few sources cited tend to be other general histories, and given how much ground there is to cover no individual topic or period is gone into in any depth. I will confess that I was a full ten pages into the book before I realized that Black was not providing a prefatory outline of the ground he was planning to cover but in fact had already begun.

    As it is, the effect is a bit like reading a coffee-table book without any pictures. Even the author’s trademark Olympian tone and elevated diction ends up sounding merely condescending. Of Barack Obama, for example, we are told “Though his pigmentation was African, neither his physiognomy nor his inflection and cadences were ethnically distinct.” So?

    A number of nice little observations are made, but for such a big book one expects more in the way of a big picture. And for an author not usually shy about expressing strong and controversial opinions, the analysis for the most part remains superficial and conventional. One can’t help feeling that it didn’t take a Conrad Black to write this book: a fact that may recommend it to some but will more likely disappoint both his admirers and detractors.

    Review first published in the Toronto Star May 24, 2013.

  • Girl in the Cellar

    Girl in the Cellar
    Allan Hall and Michael Leidig

    The first book to appear on the Natascha Kampusch story in English, this is a quickie typical of the instant genre, with some decent background reporting but nothing from Kampusch herself (who was working on her own book at the time). Kampusch therefore remains a bit of a mystery, though her jailor for eight years, Wolfgang Priklopil, is an easily recognizable type. And I don’t mean that in a literary way, as a real-life Humbert Humbert, or epigone of Fowles’s disturbed Collector. Academia may not have a record of a criminal with Priklopil’s profile (as the authors here assert), but we know him well. He was a spoiled only son who couldn’t wait for his father to die so that he could inherit all his money, and his wife in the bargain. Upon that blessed day Mommy duly proceeded to dote on her adult baby and new life partner, cooking his meals, doing his laundry, cleaning his house. “Wolfgang is my everything,” is something she apparently “always said.” Naturally enough, Wolfi grew up thinking that all girls were sluts. His own choice of a helpmeet would be cut from more traditional cloth. In his own words: “I want a partner who will underestand when I want to be alone, who can cook well, is happy to be only a housewife, who looks good but does not consider looks important. I want a woman who will simply support me in everything I do.” Natascha could never measure up. Though she had cleaning duties, after every visit by Mrs. Priklopil she was released from her dungeon to find the house “spotless.” When Priklopil let Natascha wash his car (he was lazy as well as a miser) she decided it was time to run away. Abandoned, and realizing that even after eight years of captivity he hadn’t managed to train Natascha to the level of submission freely volunteered by his mom (who was old now, and depreciating as an asset), Wolfi decided to sulk away from life and throw himself in front of a train. Goodbye, cruel world! And good riddance to another psychopathic man baby, the boomer bane of the bourgeoisie.

  • Extreme Mean

    By Paula Todd

    When the Supreme Court of Canada recently struck down part of the federal government’s “cyberbullying” bill in a decision defending online privacy it was just one more example of the conflict among the different visions and values that the Internet embodies. In particular, while the Internet is ideally seen as a medium of free and open communication, enabling the sharing of information in a digital commons, it can just as often become an instrument of state and corporate control, secrecy, spying, and predation.

    In Extreme Mean Paul Todd addresses the social problem of “cyberabuse.” This is a label Todd adopts both to signal her exasperation with the inability to clearly define “cyberbullying” as well as to emphasize the seriousness of such behaviour. Unfortunately the term remains vague, covering everything from the broadcasting of practical jokes and “trolling” to pathological and criminal behaviour. It remains unclear just how much cyberabuse is actually occurring (and why), who is doing it, who is enabling it, and who is being victimized.

    On the matter of victimhood, for example, there are clear cases of the sexual exploitation of the young and the innocent, but also muddier areas like the use of YouTube as a public pillory for prospective celebrities. Rebecca Black is Todd’s poster child for the latter, but despite becoming “the most hated person on the Internet” at the tender age of thirteen when her music video “Friday” was cybermobbed, she is not a sympathetic case. Black was a celebrity wannabe following a script that, after all, had made a global star out of Justin Beiber. But fame is a harsh game — as many a talent-show contestant taken from the stage in tears can testify – and this is as it should be. There’s a price for asking for so much attention.

    Todd is a crusading spirit, her passions ignited by such tragic Canadian cases as the suicides of Amanda Todd and Rehtaeh Parsons, as well as a vision of the great good that the Internet could be if we were to “rise up,” and “take back the Internet” by resisting cyberabuse and encouraging compassion and empathy online.

    That this is a position most people will find it hard to disagree with is, however, one of the book’s problems. Little time is spent putting forth counterarguments and other points of view. A fierce booster of the Internet, Todd doesn’t seem receptive to the idea (held by many) that less Internet, especially for young people, would be a good thing. Calls to “take back the Internet” make me suspicious of who is doing the taking. And finally I was left wondering if her attack on the upswing in incivility encompasses much more than just the Internet. It’s not clear whether Todd sees the Internet as a symptom, cause, mirror, or amplifier of what are other social dysfunctions.

    These caveats aside, the best antidote to the culture of mean online is still education. The Internet’s age of innocence is over, and people have to be made aware of its many political, economic, and psychological hazards. Todd’s book is part of that process, and helps us in particular to better understand the threats to the most vulnerable among us.

    Review first published June 28, 2014. For a journalist investigating the dark side of the Internet, I found Todd to be a bit shaky on several minor points relating to the Internet generally and discussions of sex. Her glossary, for example, defines a “dick pic” (one hardly thinks this needed explanation) as a “photograph, video, or capture of male junk.” Junk? Luckily, this term also has an entry in the glossary as “slang for sex organs, typically male.” Elsewhere in the glossary “URL” is said to be pronounced as “YOU-ARE-ELLE,” which is just telling us how the letters are pronounced, or else “Yur-el.” I have never heard anyone pronounce URL as Yur-el. Another bizarre moment comes when she tells us that “pussy” was a pet name for female sexual organs coined by one online couple “just for themselves.” I think that term is now generic.

  • Devil’s Knot

    Devil’s Knot
    Mara Leveritt

    There are many shocking and depressing tales of the failure of the criminal justice system, but the persecution of the West Memphis Three has to rank among the worst. As a sociological inquiry Mara Leveritt’s book comes up empty – she never really addresses the question of how and why this disaster occurred – but as a guide to the grim proceedings that nicely complements the HBO Paradise Lost documentaries, one that in particular offers a closer examination of the role of the presiding judge, her account is both thorough and fair-minded. In trying to answer the question of what happened one comes away with a list of all the usual problems: official incompetence that settled into an early case of tunnel vision, followed by the abuse of the power of the state as it tried to defend itself and its operatives. An inverse Southern Gothic, where the narrow, prejudiced, and ignorant trash and bubbas turned out to be those in power: the police, prosecutors, and judge. Is that irony? Or only what you might expect?