June 10th, 2012

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How to Survive Stupid Publishers

Oh, Scholastic, Scholastic, long have I grumbled about the way you divide history into "books for boys" and "books for girls", but even I didn't think you'd go as far as this.

I suppose it's the inevitable consequence of the success of the Dangerous Book for Boys and its distaff spin-offs. To begin with, the Igguldens' efforts seemed charmingly retro, but somewhere along the line the quotation marks faded away, the skin was unzipped, and revealed stood the revivified corpse of Whitney Darrow.

What will become of us?
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So much one man can do / That does both act and know

I'm not very good at remembering the names of flowers, trees or fungi. Consequently, when I go on a nature ramble, I find myself admiring these organisms and wishing I knew what to call them. It can be rather frustrating.

It's not just that I'd feel smarter (or at least not culpepperly stupid) if I did, but I suspect that knowing their names would give me access to other kinds of knowledge. Being able to label a tree "hornbeam" would unlock a casket of information - botanical, folkloric and etymological - all of which would combine and support one another, enriching my overall experience. I would probably remember my experiences more sharply, too, were I able to label objects more precisely.

That's one side of the equation. On the other, part of me thinks I should "let it all wash over me" - the world, that is - without this obsessive compulsion to assign everything a name. I should be content to be part of creation, and feel no need to be its Boswell - a role that, if anything, takes me further from the Quelle, and hence from wisdom.

I was reminded of this perennial quandary by an exchange in the comments of my last-but-one post, in which L. Lee Lowe quoted Philip Roth on the general uselessness (or at least superfluity) of literary critics. I suggested that his argument was in some ways analogous to that of people who say that you should just just live life rather than reading about it in literature, but it occurs to me that the tension between floating along in the stream and sitting on the bank sketching the stream is a much more general one even than that.

Neither position in its pure form is very satisfactory. But where should analysis end and participation begin? Is there any general rule of thumb? So far, the only one that occurs to me is that writing this post puts me way too far over on the analytical end of the spectrum.