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Found And Lost.

How do bus drivers know where they’re going? Sometimes I see a person in a driver’s uniform sitting behind the driver watching out the front and I’ll think, maybe they’re learning the route, or maybe they already know the route and are giving directions to the driver who’s really the learner. And I know that buses are, or at least were, equipped with tracking systems. I first learned this when I mentioned to a friend that on some buses the same bass baritone voice that says, “Stop requested, please remain seated until the bus comes to a complete stop” also occasionally chimes in with things like, “Now turning onto Twenty-First Avenue South.” I said it would be pretty embarrassing for the driver to have announcements like that pop up at the wrong time and pretty hilarious for me because I’m obnoxious.

Anyway that’s when my friend told me they have location tracking so the automated voice is activated based on where the bus really is, and to me that would make it even more hilarious to have the announcements pop up at the wrong time because I’m really obnoxious.

And I did once get a real demonstration of the location tracker when a driver was forced to make a detour because of construction. Within less than a minute of the driver turning onto a side street the radio beeped and a voice crackled, “Number 459, why are you off your route?” And the driver picked up the handset and explained about the construction, and fortunately it was a short detour so we all got where we wanted to go. I wouldn’t have found it hilarious at all if I had to walk a long way out of my way.

I also think sometimes the drivers turn off the location tracking system. I’m not sure this is something they’re supposed to do, and it certainly doesn’t seem right. I can’t even understand turning off the automated voice. Sure, if I were a bus driver I wouldn’t want to listen to the same announcements over and over, but it’s there for the benefit of visually impaired riders.

The reason I think they can turn off the tracking system is the other day I was riding the bus and the driver suddenly took a wrong turn.

“What the hell is this?” she asked. “Is this where I’m supposed to be going?”

I walked up to the front of the bus and started giving her directions.

“I thought this was too soon to turn into the end of the route,” she said.

“Yeah, you’re right, there’s still an overpass to go under. The end of the route is still about a mile away.”

I got off shortly after that and the bus continued on its way. Fortunately it was a straight shot and I hoped I’d helped. The next day I got on and recognized the driver from the day before.

“Did my directions help?” I asked.

“What are you talking about?” she asked.

Either she really didn’t remember or she didn’t want to admit she’d gotten lost. I went and sat down. I decided I wasn’t going to try and embarrass her by pushing it. I’m not that obnoxious.

Time Moves On.

Almost a year ago I took some pictures of this turtle sculpture at the Dauphin Island Estuarium. It’s made of around twelve-hundred cigarette butts picked up off the beach by volunteers. I’ve thought a lot about how this sculpture turned art into trash, how it’s a form of recycling. A lot of works of art break down over time. Some are meant to, but others are meant to last. Preservation and renovation are important jobs in the art world.

Then the fire at Notre Dame cathedral happened.

Fortunately the damage wasn’t as bad as it was first feared, but it’s not good either. The fire devastated a building that is itself a work of art and that was being renovated, and that was originally built to last. It’s undergone some changes over time. Figures representing the twelve apostles and symbols of the four evangelists around the spire had been removed just days before the fire. They, and the current spire which collapsed in the fire, were added by the architect Viollet-le-Duc in the mid-19th century. The original spire, neglected and damaged by wind, was removed some time between 1786 and 1791. Whether, after all the changes it’s been through, it’s still the same Notre Dame it was when it started gets into the territory of the ship of Theseus, and for now let’s just say that ship has sailed.

Both the turtle sculpture and Notre Dame came together in my mind when I realized that the sculpture represents something living and breathing that must be preserved, and Notre Dame, having been built, changed, added to, passed through, or simply seen for more than eight hundred years, is a living, breathing work of art. One represents the nature that sustains us, the other represents how we are sustained.

I don’t know if the turtle sculpture is still there, but, in spite of the damage, I want to see Notre Dame restored and preserved. The future may be uncertain but it’s shaped by the past.

Pool Rules.

All swimmers must shower before entering the pool.

All swimmers must be appropriately attired to use the pool and pool area.

All swimmers under the age of fourteen must first pass a swim test.

All swimmers under the age of five must be accompanied by an adult at all times.

Individuals with open cuts, sores, communicable diseases, or who are Kevin may not use the pool.

No glassware is allowed in the pool or pool area, including tumblers, highball glasses, shot glasses, vases, light bulbs, chandeliers, punch bowls, stemless wine glasses, windshields, Chihuly sculptures, champagne flutes, cake cloches, water coolers, butter dishes, marbles, condiment trays, pitchers, carafes, beakers, decanters, flasks, jars, urns, flagons, cruets, ewers, growlers, or amphorae.

No food or beverages are allowed in the pool.

No chewing gum in the pool area unless you brought enough for everyone.

No alcoholic beverages are allowed in the pool or pool area unless you brought enough for the lifeguard.

No spitting, nose blowing, or bodily fluids in the pool, and, hey, get out of here, Kevin.

No running in the pool area. If you can do it in the pool, hey, go for it.

No horseplay, including Equus, Ben Hur, or the Erik Satie ballet Parade.

In the event of severe weather the pool will be closed.

In the event of a fire calmly and quietly exit the area. Do not stand around and say, “Hey, how did a fire break out in the pool?”

If any object ball is jumped off the table, it is a foul and loss of turn, unless it is the 8-ball, which is a loss of game. Any jumped object balls are spotted in numerical order.

No person shall throw any item into the pool or pool area that could endanger the safety of any person. Items include weapons, chairs, other furniture, cans, Jarts, refrigerators, scissors, hazardous chemicals, angry housecats, housecats who are not angry but will be when they’ve been thrown into the pool, car tires, cars, suspension bridges, cider, very small rocks, churches, lead, ducks, black holes, needles, shoes, live electrical wires, half-eaten tuna fish sandwiches, bulldozers, and Kevin.

Except during specified times fishing with dynamite is not allowed.

A first aid kit is located somewhere around here.

Drowning is strictly prohibited.

Enter, Pursued By A Bear.

Back in the spring of 2018 the director of the library where I work called me one morning and asked if I’d be willing to put on a bear costume for Shakespeare’s birthday.

“Oh yeah,” I said, “Because of Exit, pursued by a bear, from Act III of A Winter’s Tale.”

I may have been showing off a little bit. Or more than a little bit. Anyway I was unfortunately not available and maybe that’s just as well because the event was rained out last year. And I’m a little annoyed that no one even thought to ask me if I’d be willing to grin and bear it this year because I would. I absolutely would. I did talk to a coworker who was working the event, though, and he told me his favorite Shakespeare play is Titus Andronicus, which I found a little disturbing, and I told him there’s a new play called Gary: A Sequel To Titus Andronicus that opens on a stage covered with corpses, and he probably found the fact that I was laughing a lot disturbing, but that’s another story.

I also managed to get some pictures of the event.

At one point when the musicians stopped playing I said,

If music be the food of love, play on;

Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,

The appetite may sicken, and so die.

Yeah, I may have been showing off a bit.

One of the activities was writing with a quill. It turned out to be harder than I thought it would be–maybe because I was trying my hand at Omar Khayyam, not the Bard. And contrary to what Ben Johnson said maybe Shakespeare did blot a thousand lines.

And I’m very glad that this year the rain it didn’t raineth every day.
So what’s your favorite Shakespeare play?

Cricket? You Can Shove It.

Spring is the time of year that is the worst for riding the bus because of the weather. Not that the weather’s bad. Well, sometimes it is—April showers, although we had enough rain last month that I’m pretty sure March was taking a bath, but that’s another story. Actually I’d prefer a little rain, or at least some inclement weather. It’s the clement weather that bothers me. Take yesterday, for instance. And you can keep it, as far as I’m concerned. The morning was lovely: I got up before dawn because the dogs still haven’t figured out that Daylight Savings Time means we can sleep an extra hour. The sky was clear. Jupiter stood out brightly among the stars in the south. By the time I left the house Aurora had risen from her bed adnd I heard old Tithonus chirping in the grass. A few long strands of cloud stretched across a magenta sky. It was chilly, just chilly enough that I had to wear a jacket to work.

Of course I had to wear a jacket to work.

By the afternoon Apollo was low in the west, which is weird because I thought the Apollo missions ended in the ‘70’s, and it was nice and warm. Too warm for a jacket. If I were driving it would be easy. I could just throw the jacket in the back of the car and forget about it until the next morning when it would be too cold to go out without a jacket but I’d have to go out without a jacket because I’d left it in the damn car overnight.

Riding the bus, on the other hand, left me with a choice: carry the jacket like a schmuck or wear the jacket and be a sweaty schmuck. I suppose I could also leave the jacket at the office, but that wouldn’t do me any good the next morning.

So I walked to the bus stop holding my jacket, and as I passed a grassy patch I thought I heard chirping, and then thought it sounded more like laughter.

Shut up, Tithonus.

Book ‘Em.

Years ago I worked in a library with a guy who’d get strangely annoyed by the books that were coming in. This was a university library and you could say some of the titles that passed through our hands on their way to the shelves were a little obscure or specialized. Or you couldn’t say that. I mean, you don’t have to. Anyway, he’d bring me something like So, You Want To Learn Coptic? and he’d almost yell, “Who reads this stuff?”

Somebody, hopefully, I always thought. And libraries make a lot of purchasing decisions based on patron requests, so even if he didn’t want to learn Coptic chances are somebody did. I never could figure out why it annoyed him so much that other people read books that didn’t interest him. I even kind of wanted to follow him around to see if it wasn’t just books. I imagined him in the grocery store pointing at random vegetables and yelling, “Who eats this stuff?” Or in a department store pointing at paisley shirts yelling, “Who wears this stuff?” Or at home channel-surfing and lingering over some show he didn’t like just so he could yell, “Who watches this stuff?”

I thought about that guy when I saw my first Little Free Library, pictured above, on a trip to St. Louis a few years ago. And I remembered it again just a few days ago when I found a Little Free Library in a neighborhood near where I live.

It’s funny to me to find two copies of The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin–an author who inspired another post last summer.

In fact it turns out there are a lot of Little Free Libraries near me, in addition to the regular libraries.

And, thinking about it, I realize I do wonder, who reads this stuff? Somebody, hopefully. I’d only really be annoyed if no one did.

Out Of School.

So the school year is coming to an end which, for the first time in decades, is of special significance to me because I’ve been auditing a class. It’s something I’ve thought about doing for a really long time—where I work allows me to audit one non-degree seeking class per semester, and while I wouldn’t say no to another degree, especially when it’s cold out, I’m really just interested in learning, and auditing a class is a great way to study a subject without any pressure, even though an audit is usually not an enjoyable experience, which is probably why the word “plaudit” doesn’t get more use, but that’s another story. I first became aware that auditing a class was an option when I was a senior in high school, too late for it to be of any use, although I did wonder why they wouldn’t let me audit algebra instead of making me take it a second time after I flunked it the first time around.

I was in college before I read Sylvia Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar in which her protagonist, Esther Greenwood, in an event Plath probably lifted from her own life, is terrified she’ll flunk chemistry because science just isn’t her bag. So because she’s excelled in all her other classes she talks the administrators into letting her audit chemistry and sits in each class looking like she’s taking very serious notes when in fact she spends the whole time writing poems. And I thought, hey, I could do that—except for the excelling in every other class part.

Well, there is some pressure on me, even if it’s mostly self-inflicted. I’ve been trying to keep up with the assignments and the readings, and I’ve done fairly well, although not as well as I hoped going in. I thought with my age and experience I’d be smart and cool like Val Kilmer in Real Genius, but instead I’ve been more like Rodney Dangerfield in Back To School, only not as rich, not as funny, and just as old, so I can’t even joke about why I don’t get no respect—I just get docked points for grammar. And the end of the class means a final exam. Fortunately it’s an exam and not a quiz—I’ve never been a big fan of quizzes since high school algebra, and while being bad at math was part of the reason I flunked it the first time around I think some of the blame should also go to my teacher Mr. Blankley. It’s bad enough that it was the first class of the day and I came in barely awake. Mr. Blankley looked like a bloodhound with a bad toupee and barely had the energy to breathe. He’d sit at his desk and stare at the wall behind us. And he spoke in a low drawl and would say, ““Studentsss, today we will have a quizzzzz on chapterssss ssssixxxxx and ssssseven,” and I’d be sound asleep before he could get halfway through that sentence, which usually took him about twenty minutes.

Of course quizzes, tests, and even exams have always been trouble for me, even when there was no pressure. I remember my fourth-grade teacher telling my mother, “I’ve tried to get him into a more advanced class just doesn’t test well,” which explained why there were a few times I was pulled off the playground and taken into a room with a nice lady who asked me questions like, “Can you define ‘brave’?” and of course I could in any other setting but as soon as I realized I was being tested all I could do was break out in a cold sweat and tremble and say, “I SWEAR I HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH THREE MILE ISLAND!” before jumping out the window.

And at the time I didn’t even know what I was being tested for.

It’s not that I’m completely hopeless. The fact is I really excel in situations where there’s no pressure, no one’s watching me, nothing depends on the outcome, and I’m not being asked to do anything.

So I’m going to take the final exam, if only to prove to myself that I have learned something, and also because I really have enjoyed going back to school, even to take just one class, so maybe if I fail the test badly enough I’ll be able to take it again.


Never Give Academia An Even Break.

Just for fun here’s my latest paper for the Jewish Humor class I’m taking. It should come as no surprise that I lean more strongly in favor of Mel Brooks, but I do think Eddie Cantor was a very funny guy who just made some awful choices.

Western Transformations
by Christopher Waldrop
The appeal of the American West is as a place of both freedom and opportunity for all people regardless of background, of wide-open spaces where hostile conditions mean survival depends on strength and wit, and where an individual can be, willingly or unwillingly, transformed. This makes it a place of special appeal to people seeking to escape persecution or simply looking for better lives. In Jews Of The American West Moses Rischin writes,

For Jews, the loose-jointed cosmopolitan socirty of the West offered not only economic opportunity but social acceptance and political place markedly in advance of other regions of the country. (Rischin, 28)

The West was also a place where an individual could remake him or herself. As Andrea Most says in Making Americans: Jews And The Broadway Musical,

Like the streets of New York City, the mythical nineteenth-century American West promised anonymity and freedom from conventional social hierarchies. The newcomer in a Wild West town was like an immigrant: he started fresh. No one knew who he was or where he came from, and so his chances of success depended on how well he inhabited the role he chose. (Most, 42)

Perhaps this is why the films Whoopee and Blazing Saddles, produced forty-four years apart, both deal with race and with transformation, albeit in very different ways.

The plot of Whoopee, starring Eddie Cantor and based on a stage play produced by Florenz Ziegfeld, is fairly straightforward. The film opens with a large musical number, and it was, in fact, the big screen debut of choreographer Busby Berkeley. The number announces and celebrates the wedding day of Sheriff Bob Wells and the rancher’s daughter Sally Morgan.
However Sally loves Wanenis, but can’t marry him because Wanenis is part Native American. As he explains to the hypochondriac farmhand Henry Williams, played by Cantor, “my great-grandfather married a white girl”, but has also become assimilated into white culture. He says, “Why, I’ve gone to your schools,” which causes Henry to exclaim, “An Indian in a Hebrew school!”
Unwilling to marry the sheriff Sally asks Henry to take her away secretly under the pretense that Bob doesn’t want to cowboys to get “too boisterous” and that they plan to marry in another location when she really plans to escape. She leaves a note for her father that she’s eloped with Henry. A chase ensues with Bob swearing to hang Henry. Henry’s nurse, Miss Custer, who is in love with him, also plans to kill him for his betrayal. When the car Henry and Sally are traveling in runs out of gas on a narrow mountain pass Henry suddenly demonstrates remarkable resourcefulness, if not courage, as he uses a gun Sally has given him to make a wealthy family give them some gasoline. Now pursued by both the sheriff and his men and the wealthy family (whose name is later revealed to be Underwood, giving Cantor a chance to make a joke about typewriters), Henry and Sally stop at a ranchhouse where Henry is hired as a cook, in spite of not knowing how to cook. When the owner asks him to make waffles Henry pours ketchup, Epsom salts, and flour into a bowl, singing “makin’ waffles” to the tune of “Makin’ Whoopee”, which he’d performed earlier. Miss Custer, dressed as a cowboy with a fake moustache, confronts Henry. She’s closely followed by Mr. Underwood who doesn’t recognize Henry and the two exchange surgery stories. When Sheriff Bob and his men arrive Henry hides in a stove which explodes, putting him in blackface. Sally calls this disguise “perfect”, and Henry fools Sheriff Bob and the others into thinking he’s someone else by singing and dancing. It’s difficult to bear the strain on credibility here, even for a musical.
When Henry’s blackface is wiped away and his true identity is revealed he and Sally escape again, only to be kidnapped by Native Americans who take them to their camp where Sally is reunited with Wanenis and they profess their love for each other. Henry, meanwhile, becomes part of the tribe, calling himself “Chief Izzy Horowitz”. The treatment of Native Americans is as problematic as the blackface, as they all speak in broken English and grunts, and insist that Henry smoke a pipe. There is also an elaborate musical number of Native Americans parading and dancing.
The arrival of Miss Custer again puts Henry’s life in danger, as does the arrival of Sheriff Bob and his men. At this point the chief of the tribe reveals that Wanenis was the child of white settlers. Wanenis is allowed to marry Sally, Henry, with some trepidation, agrees to marry Miss Custer, and everyone rides off on horseback, with the flivver Henry and Sally drove left to its own fate.
Unlike Whoopee which uses racism as a plot element without criticizing it Blazing Saddles, directed by Mel Brooks and with a screenplay with contributions by Richard Pryor, has a plot largely driven by racism as well as criticizing it. In conversation with Mike Sacks, Brooks attributes this to reading Gogol, saying that the Russian writer’s influence prompted him to write “about subjects such as racism for blacks, racism for Mexicans, the indignity suffered by Asian railroad workers.” (Sacks, 442). In the film’s opening an Asian railroad worker collapses in the heat and is docked half a day’s pay “for sleepin’ on the job”. The white overseers frequently use racial slurs and try to get the African American workers to sing. After Bart, played by Cleavon Little, and another worker barely escape drowning in quicksand Bart assaults the overseer Taggart and is sentenced to be hanged. He’s saved when the governor’s assistant Hedley Lamarr sees an opportunity. The railroad will have to be redirected through the town of Rock Ridge, and by appointing Bart the sheriff he can easily drive out the people and seize the land. Bart is threatened by the townspeople on arrival but tricks them into letting him go by holding a gun to his own head. Although Bart was clearly liked and respected by his fellow railroad workers, leading them in a performance of Cole Porter’s “I Get A Kick Out Of You”, this is the first time we see his resourcefulness, in much the same way that Henry in Whoopee only demonstrates wit under pressure when he robs the Underwoods.
Bart befriends Jim, an alcoholic gunslinger known as “The Waco Kid”, and shares the story of how his family came west in a wagon train. Because of their race his family was forced to stay far behind the main group, and the settlers are surrounded by “the entire Apache nation” and circle their wagons Bart and his family drive their own wagon in a circle. They then meet the Apache leader, played by Mel Brooks. Unlike the Native Americans in Whoopee Brooks speaks in Yiddish. When another starts to attack the family Brooks says, Zeit nisht meshugge (“Don’t act crazy” and tells Bart’s family to go abee gezint (“As long as we’re healthy”). While it’s not clear why he releases Bart’s family he does turn to another and ask in Yiddish, “Have you ever seen such a thing?” before adding in English, “They darker than us!” However these Native Americans are not a joke or the “noble savage”, and by having them speak Yiddish Brooks ties the long Jewish history of exile to the much more recent Native American history of forced displacement and exile.
When Lamarr threatens the town by sending the brute Mongo, who punches a horse (a nod to Sid Caesar who once did the same) and crushes saloon patrons behind a piano (music’s charms don’t always soothe the savage breast) Bart subdues him with an exploding candygram and wins over both the townspeople and Mongo. Lamarr’s attempt to undermine Bart by having the “Teutonic titwillow” Lili Von Shtupp seduce him also backfires. His other plans having failed Lamarr plans an all-out attack on Rock Ridge with every Western villain he can find, including Methodists.
There is no blackface in Blazing Saddles, since Bart’s intelligence and charm do the work of mocking racism, but when Bart and Jim sneak into Lamarr’s camp in Klan robes it’s one of Bart’s hands that gives him away. Jim tries to save the situation by calling him “Rhett”, but Bart unmasked, says, “And now for my next impression…Jesse Owens!” He then convinces the townspeople and the railroad workers to join together in racial harmony to build a duplicate Rock Ridge which they use as a trap to capture Lamarr’s gang.
The big fight scene seems at first like a parody of other westerns, with a shot of Bart and Jim accidentally punching each other in the chaos, but it quickly spills out into the Paramount lot and into another film studio where Dom DeLuise is directing a Busby Berkeley-style musical, albeit with all-male dancers in tuxedoes. This recalls an early scene in Whoopee where several of the men are dressed in tuxedoes for Sally’s wedding. The fight continues into the Paramount commissary and then into the street. Bart chases Lamarr and shoots him in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater where Blazing Saddles is playing. Bart and Jim then go in to watch the end of the film. Shooting the bad guy isn’t enough; there must be an epilogue in which Bart, back in Rock Ridge, tells the townspeople he’s leaving to fight injustice. The townspeople respond with a unanimous “BULLSHIT!” It’s funny, but also a stern reminder that racism cannot be solved by a single person. Bart and Jim then ride out to where a Cadillac waits to drive them off into the sunset. While Bart himself is not transformed, but rather, like Henry Williams, a character who draws on skills he always possessed, the people of Rock Ridge are left kinder and more tolerant, and the former railroad workers are given land on which to build homes. There is uncertainty and ambiguity in this ending, but, ultimately, I find the conclusion of Blazing Saddles much more satisfying than the fairy tale ending of Whoopee. Perhaps this is an unfair comparison, though, as the experience of watching any film must ultimately leave the viewer transformed.

Works Cited
Rischin, Moses and Livingston, John, Jews of the American West, Detroit : Wayne State University Press, 1991
Most, Andrea. Making Americans: Jews and the Broadway Musical, Harvard University Press, 2004
Sacks, Mike, Poking a Dead Frog: Conversations with Today’s Top Comedy Writers, New York, Penguin Books, 2014
Whoopee, 1930 film directed by Thornton Freeland
Blazing Saddles, 1974 film directed by Mel Brooks

Driving In Vain.

Do you ever see a car with such interesting bumper stickers that you want to follow it just to meet the driver? Sometimes I do but I never follow it because, well, that’s more than a little creepy, and also I sometimes see a car whose stickers really pique my interest while I’m on the bus and I’ve learned that telling a bus driver “Follow that car!” gets me some funny looks, but that’s another story. It’s less often that I’m intrigued by a vanity license plate–most of them just confuse me and I end up following the car around because I’m trying to figure out the meaning, which is more than a little creepy.
In Australia now they’ve actually started offering vanity plates that include emojis and this is an exciting, innovative idea that I’m pretty sure was conceived by someone who’d been bitten by a trapdoor spider or was otherwise mentally impaired because I can’t imagine how this was a good idea. It’s even worse than when they introduced vanity plates in Germany, and if you know anything about German you know the resulting plates had to be at least four feet across because German isn’t a language that lends itself to abbreviations, or lends itself to anything else. Some German words run the whole length of the alphabet and they rarely use a colon because the language has been largely disemvowelled, but that’s another story. It’s ironic too that Germany has the Autobahn with no speed limit even though you can’t go twenty miles without hitting a small town or castle, and believe me, you do not want to be going full speed when you hit a castle. Australia, on the other hand, has its east coast with Brisbane and Sydney, and then there’s about three million miles of absolutely nothing all the way to the west coast and Perth, although, believe me, you do not want to be going full speed when you hit Uluru. And it doesn’t help that Australia only pretends to be an English-speaking country, a place where you don’t grin–you “pull out your teethy-weeths”, where a sheep is known as a “jumbuck”, and where the peach, a popular euphemistic emoji, is known as a “fuzzy-wuzzy”, and the eggplant, another popular emoji for a certain body part, is known as a “Roman honkwanger”, which, let’s face it, already sounds like a euphemism.
That’s why I predict that emojis on license plates will be a short-lived phenomenon, but also they’re called “vanity plates” for a reason. Ecclesiastes tells us there is a time and a place for all things but also that all is vanity, that all things will pass in time, although “Ecclesiastes” is really hard to fit on a license plate, except in Germany.

Not Everybody’s A Blogger.

Recently the Orang-utan Librarian wrote a post titled Bloggers Are Underrated. Are bloggers underrated? That’s something I haven’t considered in a very long time. The question took me all the way back to May 2007 when I first read an op-ed titled “Not Everybody’s A Critic”, a blast at what was then called “the blogosphere” by the film and literary critic Richard Schickel. This is what Schickel had to say about the rise of book-review blogs:

Let me put this bluntly, in language even a busy blogger can understand: Criticism — and its humble cousin, reviewing — is not a democratic activity. It is, or should be, an elite enterprise, ideally undertaken by individuals who bring something to the party beyond their hasty, instinctive opinions of a book (or any other cultural object). It is work that requires disciplined taste, historical and theoretical knowledge and a fairly deep sense of the author’s (or filmmaker’s or painter’s) entire body of work, among other qualities.

Putting aside the opening sarcasm, where does he get the idea that criticism isn’t a democratic activity? He goes on to say that criticism is much more than having an opinion, that a review should “initiate intelligent dialogue about the work in question, beginning a discussion that, in some cases, will persist down the years, even down the centuries”, which is a fine idea, but why should the job of initiating such dialogue be limited to a (mostly self-selected) few? A few paragraphs later on he says, “I don’t think it’s impossible for bloggers to write intelligent reviews. I do think, however, that a simple ‘love’ of reading (or movie-going or whatever) is an insufficient qualification for the job.” A love of reading, I believe, is what prompts most people to share their responses to a book, but it’s a mistake to assume that it’s all that bloggers have to offer. In considering what criticism should be he brings up “French critic Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve, a name not much bruited in the blogosphere, I’ll warrant”—and here he reveals that he’s criticizing blogs without bothering to read any. This is the equivalent of a film critic dismissing a film without ever seeing it.

In keeping with his own lofty ideals of what criticism should be I think it’s fair to say it should be well-informed and thoughtful rather than lazily dismissive, ignorant, and sarcastic. But then toward the end it’s clear that Schickel’s real target isn’t bloggers but any writing published electronically.

The act of writing for print, with its implication of permanence, concentrates the mind most wonderfully. It imposes on writer and reader a sense of responsibility that mere yammering does not. It is the difference between cocktail-party chat and logically reasoned discourse that sits still on a page, inviting serious engagement.

Note that he’s paraphrasing Samuel Johnson who said, “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” Johnson also said, “A man will turn over half a library to make one book,” and now I’m not allowed back in the library until I pay for the damage, but that’s another story. The argument that no good writing is published online is even more ridiculous now than it was almost twelve years ago when Schickel’s op-ed was first published, and, by the way, I probably never would have seen it if it hadn’t been published online as well as in a print newspaper. And, by the way, newspapers were pretty ephemeral even before there were computers to be networked so I’m not sure it follows that everyone who writes, or wrote, for print had their minds most wonderfully concentrated. Also I hope it’s clear that I’ve put a lot of thought into what I’m writing here. I even wrote a few drafts on paper, but it’s the message and not the medium that matters.

That last point brings me back to the question of whether bloggers are underrated. And the only honest answer I can give is: it depends. Blogs are varied and individual. They’re empty vessels and, just as with a book or even a newspaper, the writing they offer is just as good or bad as the author makes it. Although, to paraphrase a more recent sage, that’s just, like my opinion, man.

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