More Book Reviews for my Lunar New Year List: #25 & 26

My CD-burner drive is about to be replaced by a DVD-burner. There’s a lot of crap on my hard disk, and I’d like to clear it off, but the machine is not cooperating, and I can’t quite tell whether it’s a hardware problem—just a faulty drive finally having given out—or a bigger problem with the whole system. However, since I did get the thing to burn a few CDs via USB on an old external burner, I am guessing it’s the drive that’s messed up, and gambling that a DVD-burner will work without my having to reinstall Windows prior to backing up my whole digital life.

In any case, in the aftermath of this discovery, I’ve been watching movies that I don’t necessarily want to hold onto long-term, and deleting them from the hard disk, so I have been reading a little less than I imagined I might be during this week off. Nonetheless, I am halfway through Naomi Klein’s No Logo and have two books in my “To Review” pile: one is a work of fiction, the other a work of academic scholarship. I’ll review the Klein once I finish it, but I thought I’d punch out reviews of the other two while I am taking a break from reading the Klein.

Book #25: A Place So Foreign & 8 More by Cory Doctorow, Introduction by Bruce Sterling.

First off: oh, to have the intro to one’s book written by none other than Bruce Sterling. This bodes extremely well. And Sterling is right when he praises Doctorow; though I liked his first novel well enough, I found the short stories in this collection far, far more convincing, courageous, innovative, amusing, and engaging. Ever since I read Doctorow’s story “Anda’s Game”—a smart and critical sendup of Orson Scott Card’s Ender storyline—online, I’ve wanted to get my hands on this collection of Docotorow’s most highly praised short stories, and I was not disappointed. (Note: the collection does not include “Anda’s Game”, which I believe was written the collection was released.)

His stories have a strange mix of joyful embrace of all things modern, and a strong distrust of the standard, tried-and-true narratives we tell ourselves about them. Fitting, that the Disneyphile should be an infovore and a junk-enthusiast. His time travel story, the title piece, isn’t really just a time-travel story; his super-hero takeoff is as much about Canadian values and Jewish identity as it is about fighting off bad guys—and the bad guys in it, no less, are very much more realistic than Lex Luthor and his ilk. The Bugout stories, as a series, each provide a fascinating look at an Earth post-alien-contact which doesn’t really fit with all the old alien-invasion/alien-saviour tropes we all know (and to my chagrin, it sounds a lot more like something I’ve been thinking about writing since my ill-fated Shell/Economist essay contest entry).

Uh… anyway. Personal favorites from among these stories include the haunting “Craphound”, “A Place So Foreign”, the hilarious tales “The Superman and the Bugout” and “To Market, to Market: The Rebranding of Billy Bailey”, and the stunning “0wnz0red“. Wow, I named five stories out of nine, and you know, the other ones are pretty damned good too. Doctorow has this way of making ridiculous, bizarre, alien beings very palpable, very earthy and real. While I think I delve into a different corner of the SF universe—something a little more overtly political, even when it doesn’t necessarily look like it—I really do aspire to his skill and his compassion for his characters. I think I read him hoping secretly that a little bit of him rubs off on me.

Speaking of which, I’m thinking about hunting down all the other short fiction by him that is available online. I happened to buy some old SF mags and one of them was an On Spec (a Canadian SF mag) that had a copy of his “Jaime Spanglish in the Nile”, a story I can’t help but feel belonged in the collection. I don’t know why it wasn’t included, as it felt as professional and accomplished as any of the other stories that made it into the collection, but anyway, it reminded me that Doctorow almost certainly has loads of short stories not in this book which are almost certainly worth reading.

Book #26: Beyond Poststructuralism: The Speculations of Theory and the Experience of Reading, edited by Wendell V. Harris.

I borrowed this from the University library—someone around here must actually be interested in poststructuralism or something, judging by some of the books sitting on the shelves in the foreign-languages collection. That, and Graham Greene: someone on faculty must be mad about Greene and Maugham and a few others, since the collection has all of their works.

In any case, back to the text at hand: this book is basically right up my alley in that it consists of a collection of critical essays about the Academic-Humanities establishment. Some of the essays present dissent against particular features of post-structuralist theory, others critique the humanities-academic industry, and still others attempt to chart courses for the future of scholarship.

I somewhat testily enjoyed John Searle’s attack on Derrida’s ideas in “Literary Theory and Its Discontents”, though of course I only know enough Derrida to know that I don’t really understand Derrida, and so my judgment on him is in reserve, though Searle’s case looks almost-damning. Searle is certainly right that theories without elucidated terminology will eventually become untenable.

Gayle Greene’s contribution to the book, a piece on feminist scholarship and feminist academia, moves from a very personal to a very critical, truly radical call for change, and one I think isn’t isolated: I would swear I saw some of the same frustrations and angers in the work of Joanna Russ almost a decade ago. Christopher Clausen’s criticism of the nationalization of literatures was especially interesting to me, having grown up being force-fed a diet of CanLit which seemed to have nothing to do with the world I was actually living in, and which seemed to be glorified above foreign Anglo-Lit for no other reason than that it had been written in Canada. I don’t care where she’s from, I have no stomach for Margaret Atwood. Clausen argues very forcefully against nationalized literary canons, and for a much more useful conceptual organization of texts.

But the highlight of the collection for me was Robert Scholes’ “The End of Hypocriticism”, in which he outlined how the whole structure of English Literary scholarship as a discipline has been built upon hypocritical foundations, where critics and teachers have been artificially divorced not only from the needs of their students, and the politics of the world surrounding the academy, but even from the literatures that are most central to their own lives. He proposes that English Department course offerings be radically altered, along the lines of a modern adaptation of the medieval Trivium of grammar, rhetoric, and logic.

His proposed course offerings: “Language and Human Subjectivity”, “Representation and Objectivity”, “System and Dialect”, and as a starter course, “Persuasion and Mediation”. The program looks difficult, to the point where I imagine most of my peers back in graduate school would have had major problems with this program in the kind of “general education” capacity that Scholes proposes these classes should be taught (equally well to as in department major classes). However, I don’t find this a bad idea at all; rather than having students simply read lit because, well, that’s what English classes are about, this kind of program would help students to grasp how language connects to their environment, to their political and social milieu, to their lives as citizens, consumers, and as the objects of continual media bombardment. And as for complaints about the difficulty, would we not ridicule science departments for making their classes so easy as we have had lit classes be in the past? I, for one, would be embarrassed to be having students perform middle-school level experiments on waves in tubs of water in undegraduate science survey courses, much less in science-major lab classes… and yet, as someone who has gone through the English Lit discipline, I can honestly say that not much changed from middle school and high school to undergraduate studies in literature… and that in graduate school, the main tangible change was the volume of expected reading and one’s verbosity and ability to use poststructuralist lingo.

I, for one, find it absolutely salutary that Scholes is proposing the same kind of thing I myself undertook when teaching students basic composition courses: teaching logic and rhetoric, making students learn to question arguments—especially the arguments they found most convincing—and asking students to read widely, to question their own ability to answer questions definitively, to carefully assess what among their ideas was subjective, and what was closely linked with the demonstrably objective. This is the kind of education I wish I had gotten, and I would gladly rush into a department somewhere to help provide it to others, if I were trained to the level needed. As it is, I am not, and my road has gone another direction, but I am happy that Scholes is working at it. I find there, if nothing else, a kindred spirit.

And indeed, the whole book, brimming not so much with dissatisfaction towards poststructuralism as with a desire for more, for something definitely useful and palpable, for a real direction in humanities scholarship instead of a constant squiggling uncertainty, made me feel as if such kindred spirits may not be so rare after all.

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