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Cue Sheet – January 2007

HOW NOT TO READ A BOOK

    My little book club, which was founded before book clubs became fashionable, assembled yesterday to discuss Crime and Punishment. This was part of an unusually social weekend, during which, at a dinner party, I actually uttered the sentence “There’s no metaphysics of pragmatism.” I can’t decide whether this means I need new friends, or therapy. Anyway, reading Crime and Punishment reminded me that nearly a decade ago I wrote an essay triggered by another Great Unread Book tackled by my group, James Joyce’s Ulysses. Just so I won’t have to come up with an original post today, here's that essay, resurrected from a defunct Web site. (As it turns out, I’m the only member of the group who finished Ulysses, but everybody in the current group finished Crime and Punishment.)

    THERE WE WERE, SIX AVID READERS with advanced degrees, confessing to one another our shared secret: Each household held a copy -- an unread copy -- of James Joyce's Ulysses. A sense of relief and embarrassed delight fluttered through our little group; until that moment, I, for one, had assumed that my copy was the only one that sat uncracked upon the shelf. But now I knew I was not the only person in the world who had faked his way through Joyce allusions all his adult life.
    It isn't as if we had been intellectually dishonest. We hadn't been buying book-spine facades, little literary Potemkin villages behind which we stashed such cultural humiliations as cheap booze and videos. No, we had purchased actual, tangible books (well, one of us had inherited his Ulysses from his father, who hadn't read the thing either). And I am certain that we each intended to read our books...eventually.
    Don't most of us gaze lovingly and longingly over our collections of great unread books? That sturdy Library of America volume featuring Moby Dick, that yellowed paperback copy of War and Peace that looks like it's seen more of the former than the latter? And don't we swear to ourselves that we will sit down someday and read those fine tomes, right after we finish those much-delayed household projects and look through the magazines that have been piling up?
    After all, we haven't bought these books to impress other people. We've bought them because other people have impressed their importance upon us. Our high school teachers, college professors, and friends all mention them with as much reverence as can be mustered in our cynical society. These old texts are continually reissued in new editions, or at least with fresh cover illustrations. They also provide fodder for Hollywood, and not just as material that saves somebody the trouble of writing original screenplays. Go to the latest Star Trek movie, and you'll hear Capt. Picard quote Melville. How could we not get the idea that these are works that we must, someday, read?
    We know exactly what they are, of course. The experts compile vast book lists for us to ponder. Every major retail book store displays several copies of Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren's How to Read a Book. This was first published in 1940, at the height of America's intellectual self-improvement craze, when much of the bourgeoisie launched itself out of mouth-breathing Babbittry into a new cultural category: the middle-brow. The ideal goal of the new bourgeois-gentilhomme was to develop broad taste and knowledge. The actual achievement, more often than not, was to purchase some ready-made library like Encyclopaedia Britannica's Great Books of the Western World and store it prominently near the baby grand piano, which functioned less as a musical instrument than as a flat surface that could accommodate several half-finished martinis.
    How to Read a Book, once it's through the how-to part, offers a list of books to practice on. Not coincidentally, the list corresponds to the Great Books series, with a few important additions (but only one living author, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn). This list is where the trouble begins. I don't mean the tiresome controversy over canonical texts versus diverse voices, but the very existence of reading lists themselves. Over the years the Adler/Van Doren list and others of its ilk have been amplified, trimmed, answered, and counter-argued, and in every case we've wound up with yet another list of books we haven't read, but should.
    Twelve members of the English faculty at the university in my city have just issued a reading list for high school students preparing for college study. It's basically the Great Books lineup made a bit more relevant and inclusive --Nicomachus of Gerasa's Introduction to Arithmetic is out, Dereck Walcott's Dream on Monkey Mountain is in. But how many high school kids will slog through the nearly 200 titles here, brawny books ranging from John Dos Passos' USA (counts as one) to Shakespeare's major plays (counts as six), with the odd detour into the works of Zora Neale Hurston and Leslie Marmon Silko? How many adults will make it through each of these volumes? How many of the narrowly specialized members of the university English department have cried "Excelsior!" from atop this bookish butte? Can they really claim an intimate familiarity with both The Federalist Papers and the plays of Wole Soyinka?
    But admit it--you're sitting there right now jotting down "Silko" and, if you are truly sick, even "Nicomachus" in preparation for your next trip to the bookstore. You are drawn to book lists exactly as a pubic hair is drawn to the shower drain. If you could just read all these books, you would pull away from a mass of conformity and be swept along, spun around and sucked down into a realm that is dank, twisted, frightening, and excitingly unlike anything in your cramped, sour little existence.
    Knowledge is a gap in our vast ignorance, and that gap widens with each intellectually stimulating book we read. So we stockpile recommended books. True, we collect partly for the aesthetic pleasure of seeing the books on our shelves, partly for the smug satisfaction of possessing something that is quantitatively and qualitatively better than what the Joneses own, and partly so we'll have something to do with all that free time we anticipate at the end of the week, or at the end of our lives. But we stockpile mainly in good faith, with the real intention, however long deferred, of adding to ourselves as well as to our libraries.
    My friends and I have resolved to read Ulysses by June 16, the date in 1904 on which the novel's action takes place. It looks like a sturdy book, one that can pry those walls of ignorance a bit farther apart.

quodlibet,

THREE PLAYS AND A CONCERT

    Welcome to the new, streamlined, hyper-efficient me as theater critic. In the latest Tucson Weekly, I cover three plays in the space of two reviews, accessible via a single link!

    Three highly recommendable plays currently on the Tucson boards happen to deal in quite different ways with the complexities of role-playing and peculiar perceptions of reality. If that sounds awfully intellectual, well, it is. But that doesn't mean it can't also be entertaining.
    Indeed, two of the plays--Souvenir at Arizona Theatre Company and The Woman in Black at Beowulf Alley--are almost frothy. But if we were talking about beer, that would just mean that they've got a good head on them.
    Of the three, the play surest to exercise the cerebral muscle is Jean Genet's The Maids, presented by The Rogue Theatre.
    Details at the aforementioned single link. Along with that, I have a short concert preview:
    Right now, the members of the Catalina Chamber Orchestra are no doubt quivering with excitement over their Jan. 28 engagement with Enrique Bátiz, Mexico's leading conductor and a figure familiar from dozens of recordings with European labels.
    Come Jan. 29, the day after the concert, will they still be quivering? Numb? Dazed? The music on the program is easy on the ear, but much of it is difficult to play. Bátiz is a demanding character, so the encounter will not exactly be a relaxing break for the orchestra. And if the program succeeds in its goal of drawing a significant Hispanic crowd, the experience could be even more energizing for the orchestra--and, beyond that, more draining--than usual.
    OK, it’s not that short. You can read the rest here.

tucson-arts,

WORD TO THE UNWISE

    If you really want me to respond to your questions or comments, don't send them to me under a phony name and dummy e-mail address. Why should I take you seriously if you don't think enough of your own ideas to put your name behind them?

quodlibet,

JOIN THE CLUB

    Colleague Mike Serres has forwarded this “Jargon Watch” item from Wired:

CLASSICAL CLUBBING n. A new trend in orchestral music, classical clubbing mixes woodwinds and brass with vodka and tonic. As concert hall audiences dwindle, young instrumentalists are moving the classical repertoire into bars and interlacing J. S. Bach with DJ beats in a mashup as cultural as it is musical.

Classical Music,

TRYING TOO HARD

    Last night, after a long afternoon of radio fund-raising, I met my wife and two of our friends for dinner at a restaurant we’ve patronized for many years. The place has changed hands several times, although the food remains fairly consistent, and a new regime seems to be in charge. My guess is that it’s a family fairly fresh from the Old Country, given the tentative command of English a couple of them have. And, boy, are they eager to please. Too eager. Beginning about halfway through the meal, one or another of them would badger us literally every two minutes, checking on our satisfaction and offering us water. Lots of water. This was amusing at first, but before long I grew annoyed. We couldn’t carry on a conversation because the staff was intrusively attentive.
    It’s strangely off-putting when someone is too eager to please, which is why, as an audience member, I don’t mind public-radio fund-raising drives but I find public-television pledge drives intolerable. In radio, we just do what we usually do, but less of it so we can fit in pledge breaks. Same mix of music, except that many of the selections are necessarily shorter (nothing more than 18 minutes long, because that’s the maximum time between breaks). Public television, in contrast, hauls out all kinds of special programming during its campaigns, in part to hold its regular audience with nifty, shiny things, and in part to lure non-viewers with specials that are totally unrelated to the PBS core mission but may dupe newcomers into phoning in a pledge. To me, that smacks of hypocrisy; isn’t the regular programming good enough to deserve support? That, rather than the pledge breaks, is what keeps me tuned out during TV campaigns. Radio fund-raising is much more agreeable; we aren’t trying too hard.

radio-life,

LIGHT AND LEAN

    Two completely different approaches to “theater lite” this week. First, there’s pure froth at Invisible Theatre:

    Jerry and Molly Schiff feel like the unluckiest people in the world. They're people who hate people who are overrunning their Malibu neighborhood on this fine July day en route to the wedding of Barbra Streisand and James Brolin.
    Actually, it's Jerry who's angry and resentful. Molly is merely annoyed by the noise. (News helicopters! Limos disgorging celebrities! Maury Povich in ugly shorts on the front lawn!) Jerry, on the other hand, sees this as a personal affront. He and Molly live right next door to Babs, and they haven't been invited to the wedding. True, their little house can't compare to the Streisand estate, to say nothing of the bungalow on the other side to which Drew Barrymore is adding turrets. No, their house is so modest that they've been reduced to living on the set of last year's Invisible Theatre production of Cookin' With Gus.
    Oh, did I mention that this is a play by Daniel Stern, called Barbra's Wedding? That it's the latest offering from Invisible Theatre? That it's a moderately funny account of a marriage that looks to be skidding into a loud divorce on the very day that Barbra is celebrating her nuptials?
    You can read my whole Tucson Weekly review here. Then there’s heavier fare, with all the fat and just a bit of the meat trimmed off:
    In its mainstage series, Live Theatre Workshop is presenting the comedy I Hate Hamlet. And when you initially learn what the company is doing with the real Hamlet in its late-night Etcetera series, you might worry that the hatred has been held over for the 10:30 show. More than half of Shakespeare's text has been wrenched away; many of the male characters have been turned into women; and there's a definite gay thing going on with Hamlet's buddy Horatio.
    Yet what's obvious once you're spun out of the theater after this intense, two-hour distillation of Hamlet is that just about everyone involved loves this play. The young actors are fully committed to every single line; the emotions are true; and director Adam-Adolfo's adaptation strips the script down to its essentials. This comes at the expense of some character development, but it does wonders for the trajectory of the plot. The paring is so smooth that nonspecialists in the audience aren't likely to miss any of the cut passages, except for the business with poor Yorick's skull.
    The rest of the review lies here.

tucson-arts,

About Cue Sheet

James Reel's cranky consideration of the fine arts and public radio in Tucson and beyond.