Jul 25 2010

Mating, Norman Rush style

I just finished Norman Rush’s Mating which I thought was a relationship-tour-de-force (thanks for the recommendation Stasia). The writing was excellent and for the first time in a long time I felt completely inside a character’s head.

The novel takes place in a theoretical African women’s colony and loosely centers around an attempt to create a Utopian society, but really it’s mostly about the relationship between the narrator (an intellectual herself) and a member of the academic elite. There are great pieces about large picture issues such as economics, wealth inequality, education, sustainability, charity and the like, but Rush spends the majority of his efforts on the subtler interpersonal issues like gender roles and power inequality. The narrator is clearly someone who has thought extensively about who she is and how she wants to be in the world (and be treated by the world), and it really made me think as I was reading it what a different experience it is being a woman interacting with society than my everyday experience.

I would definitely recommend reading it.

I should also mention that speaking strictly from a vocabulary standpoint, it’s the most challenging book I’ve read in a long time. In addition to some minor pieces in French (and Latin!) here’s a (extremely) partial list of vocabulary that I looked up while reading.

prolepsis – anticipation of possible objections in order to answer them in advance
cavil – (n) a trivial and annoying objection; (v) to raise trivial and annoying objections
cathect – to invest emotion or feeling in (an idea, object, or another person)
fecund – very productive or creative
accede – to give consent
celerity – speed, quickness
excoriate – to denounce or berate severely
risible – causing to laugh
labile – apt or likely to change
peroration – a long speech characterized by lofty, often pompous language
sanguine – cheerfully optimistic; red/ruddy
gestalt – a configuration, pattern, or organized field having properties that cannot be derived from the summation of its component parts
alacrity – cheerful readiness
enfin – in conclusion; finally
fugue – a period during which a person suffers from loss of memory, often begins a new life and upon recovery remembers nothing of the amnesiac stage
crepitation – cracking sound
arras – tapestry, wall hanging
abjured – to renounce, repudiate
desultory – lacking in consistencies or order
sangfroid – coolness of mind
acquisitive – eager to get wealth
apposite – suitable, well adapted
calumny – a false or malicious statement
syncretize – to attempt to combine or unite
bouleversement – overturning, convulsion, turmoil
voluble – characterized by a ready and continuous flow of words; fluent; glib; talkative
aleatory – depending on a contingent event; of or pertaining to accidental causes
noetic – of or pertaining to the mind
clerisy – learned persons as a class; literati; intelligentsia

I hope I’m able to retain a portion of the vocabulary that I learned reading this book. Stasia’s already started his next (and only other novel to date) Mortals. I hear it’s good, but I have a number of other books en-queued to get to first.

Jul 8 2010

Deresiewicz’s Faux Friendship

I finally got around to reading William Deresiewicz’s Faux Friendship (from the The Chronicle of Higher Education’s The Chronicle Review) which several people had recommended due to my interest in friendship and also in social networks.

Overall I think the article is well thought out and articulate. Deresiewicz does a good job at describing certain aspects that I often try to express in criticizing social networks. The article doesn’t really do enough in my mind to indicate to people the choice that they’re making in choosing social networks, and that it is a choice away from more substantive forms of friendship. This aspect of choice is of paramount importance to me as someone who everyday is trying to become the best person I can be and encouraging others to do the same. It needs to be called out in every applicable instance that we are all making choices innumerable times a day and that only we (as moral individuals) get to decide whether those choices will bring us closer to or farther away from the person we aspire to be.

I know that at first brush that last bit seems to be a digression from my thoughts on the article, but for me morality and friendship are inexorably related. My idea of friendship is loosely the connections shared with those few people where we’re actively working together to become the-people-we-want-to-be and where through our association we’re made more capable of achieving that goal. So it follows in my mind that discussions of friendship would often precede normative discussions of morality.

The copy I read of the article was a printed copy that Stasia had already marked up with her notes so even though we haven’t actively talked about it yet, it felt like there was a dialogue transpiring between our notes.

Here are some of my favorite parts from the article:

“And so we return to Facebook. With the social-networking sites of the new century—Friendster and MySpace were launched in 2003, Facebook in 2004—the friendship circle has expanded to engulf the whole of the social world, and in so doing, destroyed both its own nature and that of the individual friendship itself. Facebook’s very premise—and promise—is that it makes our friendship circles visible. There they are, my friends, all in the same place. Except, of course, they’re not in the same place, or, rather, they’re not my friends. They’re simulacra of my friends, little dehydrated packets of images and information, no more my friends than a set of baseball cards is the New York Mets.”

“Finally, the new social-networking Web sites have falsified our understanding of intimacy itself, and with it, our understanding of ourselves. The absurd idea, bruited about in the media, that a MySpace profile or “25 Random Things About Me” can tell us more about someone than even a good friend might be aware of is based on desiccated notions about what knowing another person means: First, that intimacy is confessional—an idea both peculiarly American and peculiarly young, perhaps because both types of people tend to travel among strangers, and so believe in the instant disgorging of the self as the quickest route to familiarity. Second, that identity is reducible to information: the name of your cat, your favorite Beatle, the stupid thing you did in seventh grade. Third, that it is reducible, in particular, to the kind of information that social-networking Web sites are most interested in eliciting, consumer preferences.”

So check out the article if you have a few minutes, it’s certainly worth the read.