Books in General

The Banality of Empathy

2 July 2019

From The New York Review of Books:

I killed a man the other day. Not literally, of course. I was watching “Bandersnatch,” the newest episode of the dystopian TV show Black Mirror. The episode cleverly imitates the form of a choose-your-own-adventure book. Every few minutes, the hero—I forget his name, an adorably disheveled white dude trying to make it as a videogame programmer in the Eighties—confronts a binary choice: this cereal or that cereal, this album or that album, follow that creepy fella or have a chat with your shrink. A black menu bar rises from below and you, the viewer, have to click on a choice for him before the thin white line retracting from both sides of the screen disappears—a kind of techno-hourglass. If you abdicate, the show makes its own choice.

I found this episode pleasingly meta: there’s an actual choose-your-own adventure book the dude’s obsessed with and a conspiracy theory (plots and plots!) about being controlled by unseen forces. At one point, he shouts something like “Who’s there?!” while gazing paranoiacally at the ceiling.

. . . .

This viewing experience finally undid for me what I have long suspected to be a meaningless platitude: the idea that art promotes empathy. This idea is particularly prevalent when it comes to those works of art described as “narrative”: stories, novels, TV shows, movies, comics. We assume that works that depict characters in action over time must make us empathize with them, or as the saying goes, “walk a mile in their shoes.” And we assume that this is a good thing. Why?

. . . .

The idea goes back at least to the eighteenth century, when the philosopher Adam Smith placed “sympathy” (meaning something closer to what we would now call “empathy”) at the center of ethical relations, leading the novelist George Eliot to claim, a century later, that “if Art does not enlarge men’s sympathies, it does nothing morally.” This concatenated belief is now everywhere: art encourages empathy and empathy will save us all. We see it in lay summaries of neuroscience, in the use of virtual reality to foster empathy, and lately, in sporadic calls for us to read fiction about those especially under threat in our time: refugees, victims of mass shootings, transgender people, etc.

Karl Ove Knausgaard’s acceptance speech for his 2015 Welt Literaturpreis, published as “The Vanishing Point” in The New Yorker, doesn’t use the word empathy but typifies the general tenor of the claim. Musing on the photo of a “dead little boy on the beach”—Alan Kurdi, a young Syrian refugee who washed up drowned on the shores of the Mediterranean—Knausgaard is shocked into a realization: “Are people dying? While this insight may be banal, its repercussions are not.” He goes on to compare the news media, which he thinks takes a remote, drone’s-eye view of other people, with an idealized version of the novel:

There is a vanishing point in our humanity, a point at which the other goes from being definite to indefinite. But this point is also the locus for the opposite movement, in which the other goes from indefinite to definite—and if there is an ethics of the novel, then it is here, in the zone that lies between the one and the all, that it comes into force and takes its basis. The instant a novel is opened and a reader begins to read, the remoteness between writer and reader dissolves. The other that thereby emerges does so in the reader’s imagination, assimilating at once into his or her mind… This space—that is, the novel’s—is idiosyncratic, particular, and singular: in other words, it represents the exact opposite of the media, which strives toward the universal and general.

Knausgaard captures how our concept of empathy has shifted. This isn’t just putting another person’s shoes on. Rather, the space between people “dissolves”; the reader “assimilates” the other into his or her mind.

. . . .

Empathy is, in a word, selfish. In his bracing and persuasive 2016 book Against Empathy, Paul Bloom writes, “Empathy is a spotlight focusing on certain people in the here and now… Empathy is biased… It is shortsighted.” Bloom helpfully distinguishes between the more useful cognitive empathy—understanding what’s happening in other minds and bodies—and emotional empathy, trying to feel like or even as someone else. With a simple thought experiment—you pass by a lake where a child is drowning—Bloom shows that emotional empathy is often beside the point for moral action. You don’t have to feel the suffocation, the clutch of a throat gasping for air, to save someone.

Link to the rest at The New York Review of Books

Penny Dreadfuls

1 July 2019

From The British Library:

In the 1830s, increasing literacy and improving technology saw a boom in cheap fiction for the working classes. ‘Penny bloods’ was the original name for the booklets that, in the 1860s, were renamed penny dreadfuls and told stories of adventure, initially of pirates and highwaymen, later concentrating on crime and detection. Issued weekly, each ‘number’, or episode, was eight (occasionally 16) pages, with a black-and-white illustration on the top half of the front page. Double columns of text filled the rest, breaking off at the bottom of the final page, even if it was the middle of a sentence.

The success of highwaymen and gothic tales

The bloods were astonishingly successful, creating a vast new readership. Between 1830 and 1850 there were up to 100 publishers of penny-fiction, as well as the many magazines which now wholeheartedly embraced the genre. At first the bloods copied popular cheap fiction’s love of late 18th-century gothic tales, the more sensational the better, ‘a world,’ said one writer, ‘of dormant peerages, of murderous baronets, and ladies of title addicted to the study of toxicology [the study of poison], of gipsies and brigand-chiefs, men with masks and women with daggers, of stolen children, withered hags, heartless gamesters, nefarious roués, foreign princesses’.

. . . .

The first ever penny-blood, in 1836, was Lives of the Most Notorious Highwaymen, Footpads, &c., in 60 numbers. Highwaymen remained a favourite. Gentleman Jack was published over four years, without too much worry for historical accuracy or continuity. (One character was, rather carelessly, killed twice.) Dick Turpin was a great favourite. His story, and especially the time he (supposedly) rode the 200 miles from London to York overnight, was retold endlessly. In Black Bess; or, The Knight of the Road, Turpin was not executed until page 2,207.

The illustrations were an essential element, as much an advertising tool as art. One regular reader said, ‘You see’s an engraving of a man hung up, burning over a fire, and some … go mad if they couldn’t learn what he’d been doing, who he was, and all about him.’ It is not surprising, therefore, that one publisher’s standing instruction to his illustrators was, ‘more blood – much more blood!’

. . . .

Later, after highwaymen and then evil aristocrats fell out of fashion, penny-bloods found even more success with stories of true crimes, especially murders. And if there were no good real-life crimes current, then the bloods invented them. The most successful of them was the story of Sweeney Todd. The ‘Demon Barber’ first appeared in a blood entitled The String of Pearls, which began publication in 1846. Even before it reached its conclusion, it was adapted for the stage, setting the murderous barber, who killed his clients for his neighbour Mrs Lovett to bake into meat-pies, on the road to world fame.

Link to the rest at The British Library

How Technology Helped Me Cheat Dyslexia

28 June 2019

From Wired:

I’m going to tell you a secret. It’s something almost no one in my professional life knows. I’m dyslexic. Given that knowledge, my chosen career—writer—might seem odd. But while I was cursed with poor spelling skills, I’ve always been drawn to storytelling. The career-planning report that accompanied the aptitude test I took at 13 even tried to dissuade me from a “literary” career, but even back then I had enough bravado to overrule that piece of computer-generated advice.

Dyslexia, my constant companion, occupies a taboo place in my personal narrative. Like my breath, I often forget it’s there. Sometimes I delude myself into thinking I’ve outgrown it. When I told friends that I was writing this article, several advised me to back out of the contract. One didn’t even believe me when I told her I was dyslexic. How could I be a writer? They were concerned this assignment might be my last.

But I’ve never thought of myself as having a disability. Instead, I see it as a glitch, and one I’ve gotten good at masking. I’ve been able to hide my dyslexia for decades simply because I live in an age of technological wonders. Microsoft Word spell-checks most every syllable I write. When my dyslexic mind mangles a word so much that it’s rendered un-spell-checkable, I’ll deploy an arsenal of workarounds. I might reverse-engineer a word by typing an easy synonym into the thesaurus, or I might paste my best attempt into my browser bar and let the search engine offer the correct spelling as a suggested query.

. . . .

These “cheats” are ingrained in my writing process; I hardly notice doing them anymore. But something happened a few months ago to break me out of my familiar routines. I began writing with the help of an AI-powered browser plug-in so adept at correcting my linguistic missteps, it ended up sending me on a quest to discover what life might be like in a technologically enabled post-dyslexic world.
When I was really little, I tried to see words—the actual orthography—as pictures. For the word “dog,” I would think: There’s a circle then a line, then a circle, then a circle with a hook. Knowing the specific letters and decoding them wasn’t part of my process. Thinking in pictures was how reading worked, I thought.. . . .

At this point in my professional life, I’m only outed when writing by hand in a public setting, which was the case when I went on a book tour to promote my memoir about new motherhood and wrote my inscriptions with an unforgiving black Sharpie. I’d keep post-it notes and a pen by my side. “Could you put down what you want me to write? And if you have a fancy name like Margaux, well, jot that down too.”

. . . .

While it is agreed that dyslexia is a language-based learning disability, there is no universally accepted definition of the phenomenon, nor is there a complete understanding of its cause. But with the arrival of functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure brain activity, scientists in the last few decades have been able to study the brain activity of dyslexics. What’s striking is how the dyslexic brain does not utilize areas usually engaged in reading. In addition, the brain can be seen jury-rigging other areas to form words in the same way a stroke victim might during recovery, harnessing plasticity—the brain’s ability to rewire itself.

A hallmark of dyslexia is the inability to discern phonemes, distinct sounds represented by specific letters. I struggle with this. I can hear the sounds, but I sometimes can’t translate them to letters on the page. The other day, I wanted to write the word “agitated.” This is a word I know. I’ve said it aloud countless times without mispronouncing it, and I’ve read it often as well. And yet, when typing it, even sounding it out as I go, I hear a “d” and a “j” in it. So fishing around in my brain’s Bermuda Triangle, I typed out the word adjetated. I can remember short words—most of the shopworn workhorses come easy—and a bunch of longer ones too. But there remains a large subgroup of words I cannot phonetically master or remember.

Then, a few months ago, I discovered Grammarly, a free cloud-based software extension that you add onto a web browser. The plug-in is billed as a “writing assistant,” but I mostly used it as a spell-checker, a task at which it proved nearly omniscient. Grammarly could help me spell even the words that regularly flummoxed MS Word and Google.

Those first few weeks with Grammarly, it felt like I was like falling for a crush. In the browser, it works like any other spellchecker. An elegant light green box (Pantone 2240 U) appears when the cursor hovers over a red underlined word. But my infatuation quickly grew. Even the name, “Grammarly,” sounds like the benevolent hero in a Jane Austen novel: Good Mr. Grammarly! The software seemed to get me—and my scrambled misspellings—in ways that no other had before. Grammarly always knew the right word. It even seemed to understand the way my dyslexic brain thinks—a maze of patched and redirected connections zig-zagging around my gray matter—and could come up with exactly what I was trying to say, even though I couldn’t fully spell it. It was only then, using something so seamless, that I wondered if technology could soon bring an end to my dyslexia as I knew it.

Link to the rest at Wired

Half of Women over 40 Say Older Women in Fiction Are Clichés, Survey Finds

28 June 2019

From The Bookseller:

Fifty-one percent of women over 40 feel older women in fiction books tend to fall into clichéd roles, according to a new survey.

The brand new data reveals 47% of women over 40 say there are not enough books about middle-aged or older women. Yet women over 45 buy more fiction than any other segment, and 84% say they read every, or almost every day.

Exploring how women over 40 really feel about their portrayal in fiction, the survey of more than 1,046 women found when older characters do appear in fiction, half of women (50%) say they’ve seen them being portrayed as baffled by smartphones, computers or the internet – and think it’s insulting. 75% buy their books online, with 55% hearing about the books they buy online compared to 43% who find out about new releases in magazines (43%) or newspapers (42%).

The findings of the survey, in association with Gransnet, the UK’s biggest social media site for older people, and publisher HQ (HarperCollins), were revealed today.

. . . .

The majority (67%) say they want to read about characters they can identify with personality (71%) and values (68%) of the character what really matters to them. Just 19% say they feel that the age of the central character is important.

The survey found those polled would like to see women their age portrayed as more active (56%), working (41%) and going to the types of places that they themselves frequent (50%). Almost half of women (46%) agreed that older women are represented better in books than they are in films or on TV.

Gransnet Editor Cari Rosen said: “Gransnet users have long been frustrated with the perception that you are essentially past it the minute you hit 40. We know from our forums that many women remain active, busy and vital into their 70s and beyond, and it’s essential to see that reflected in the books that we read. It’s also important to recognise that we like to read a range of fiction, from crime and thrillers to stories about travel and friendship and everything in between. We don’t want to be typecast in our reading choices, any more than we do in any other area of our lives.”

. . . .

95% say they read fiction for enjoyment, 87% say it’s to relax and almost 59% say it’s to escape the pressures of everyday life. 87% of respondents say they read in bed, while 17% read in the bath, and 14% on the loo.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

The Summer Read That Predicted the College-Admissions Scandal

28 June 2019
Comments Off on The Summer Read That Predicted the College-Admissions Scandal

From The Wall Street Journal:

As the news broke on the college-admissions scandal, Bruce Holsinger says he felt shocked, both as a parent and a professor. As an author, however, he understood how parents could cross so many lines. Years before parents including Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman made headlines, Mr. Holsinger began writing his own drama of a school-admissions scandal.

In “The Gifted School,” out July 2, Mr. Holsinger, a 51-year-old professor at the University of Virginia, explores just how far parents will go to achieve the status of a prestigious education for their children. “Over-parented kids, over-invested parents, a cutthroat selection process, and the rest kind of writes itself,” Mr. Holsinger says in an interview.

With two sons now in high school and college, he has experienced how parenting can become a competitive sport. His new book shows how this not-so-friendly competition can shatter friendships and self-perceptions as parents fight to land their child a spot in a community’s new gifted school.

. . . .

What inspired you to write the book, and when did you start working on it?

I started sketching out “The Gifted School” something like 15 years ago. So in some ways this novel has been in my skull for a while. When I really started writing it in earnest, I remembered a sentence from a book my mother, a Montessori teacher, published years ago. It was about child development, and I remembered that she had discussed gifted education.

I went back, and that’s actually where I found the epigraph for the novel: “There is something so tantalizing about having a gifted child that some parents will go to almost any lengths to prove they have one.” That in a nutshell is really the theme of “The Gifted School.”

. . . .

Did writing the book change the way you thought about parenting?

It gave me more of a sense of empathy for some of the choices that I’ve made, that other people have made. I hope what readers can take from “The Gifted School” is that similar sense of empathy, that even if you’re reading about outrageous behaviors on the parts of other parents, that maybe they hold up a mirror to your own choices and your own decisions and how you act in the world.

Since you spent so much time in this fictional world, how did you feel when you heard about parents acting the same way in the admissions scandal?

One of my initial worries was, oh no; I wanted people to think that the stuff the parents were doing in “The Gifted School” was so crazy and outrageous it couldn’t possibly be plausible. I wanted the novel to have a real satirical edge, so a little bit of me worries that the admissions scandal blunts that a bit.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)

Revisiting Judith Krantz’s “Scruples,” a Novel with a Passion for Clothes

25 June 2019
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From The New Yorker:

Judith Krantz always wanted to write fiction, but it was not until she was approaching fifty, in the late nineteen-seventies, that her husband, Steve, persuaded her to finally attempt a novel. Her career up until that point had been in women’s magazines; she had been an accessories editor at Good Housekeeping and then a writer at Ladies Home Journal and Cosmopolitan, and she was an avid connoisseur of clothes. So when she turned, with trepidation, to fiction, she wrote what she knew. Her first novel, “Scruples,” published in 1978, is a fashion-retail version of a Cinderella story, set in nineteen-sixties L.A. It centers on Billy Orsini (born Wilhelmina Hunnenwell Winthrop), a young striver who moves to New York, where she takes secretarial work at Ikehorn Enterprises, a global conglomerate, and begins sleeping with the C.E.O., Ellis Ikehorn. They marry, and she takes to Ellis’s lavish life style with gusto—appearing at events and on best-dressed lists, and wearing a pair of eleven-karat Harry Winston diamond earrings at all times of day, “heedless of convention.” Then Ellis suffers a stroke, and the couple move to Bel Air for the mild weather. When Ellis dies, Billy finds herself a rich young widow with money and ambition to burn. So she decides to do what any clotheshorse dreams of: she opens a luxury boutique, called Scruples, on Rodeo Drive, and becomes the queen of Los Angeles fashion.

The rest of the plot of “Scruples” is schlocky, steamy “Dynasty”-era romance fare: hearts get broken, tongues get intertwined, gossip gets spread around. Much of the book reads today as deeply out of date; the phrases “divine wop” and “fag bullshit” are tossed off within the first ten pages. But, as an account of nascent eighties decadence the novel remains one of the most enjoyable texts I’ve ever read. At the store—which was modelled on the über-successful Giorgio Beverly Hills—Billy hires a smooth salesman named Spider Elliot, a blond lothario who sleeps with his customers as often as he dresses them. On Spider’s recommendation, she installs a pub and a backgammon table in the store, a boy’s club inside the girl’s club where shoppers’ husbands can drink and dally while their wives swipe their credit cards. And oh, the clothes! “Scruples” contains so many delicious descriptions of garments that you may find yourself longing to pet its pages. Fabrics are not just brown; they are “future-wordly tones of melting taupe, fawn, biscuit, and greige.” A woman doesn’t just walk into a party; she enters “with the glitter of a matador, encased in a vintage, shocking pink-and-black satin Schiaparelli, thickly encrusted with gold braid.” Of Billy’s jet-setting years with Ellis in Paris, Krantz writes:

At a state dinner at the White House she was the most resplendent figure there, only twenty-two years old, wearing pale lilac satin from Dior and emeralds that had once belonged to Empress Josephine. At twenty-three, when she and Ellis were photographed on horseback on their thirty-thousand-acre ranch in Brazil, Billy wore plain jodhpurs, boots, and an open-necked cotton shirt, but at the presentation of a new Yves Saint Laurent collection two weeks later, she wore the landmark suit from his previous collection, while Ellis, who was becoming an old Paris hand, whispered to her the numbers of the dresses he thought she should order in a way that made people with serious fashion backgrounds remember the black-tie spring collection at Jacques Fath in 1949, sixteen years earlier.

Krantz, who died over the weekend, at the age of ninety-one, developed her taste for fashion early. Born in 1928 as Judith Bluma-Gittel Tarcher, she was the daughter of Eastern European Jewish immigrants.

. . . .

If Krantz had one exceptional skill, it was knowing how to walk into a store and, with laser focus, find the item that would look sensational. Shopping, “Scruples” argues, is all about self-knowledge.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker 

PG says that, absent Eastern European Jewish immigrants, New York would be a pretty boring place.

From Huffpost:

We can’t all afford the luxury of traveling or living abroad. But if you live in New York City, maybe you can experience some of Europe’s offerings without leaving the country. A slice of European flavor can be found in the personality of each NYC neighborhood.

1. East Village — Prague 
With its bohemian vibe and cultural diversity, the offbeat neighborhood of the East Village channels the Eastern European city of Prague. It’s not hard to imagine Allen Ginsberg, a former East Village resident, strolling with fellow Beatnik Jack Kerouac along the Charles Bridge in Praha, former capital of Bohemia Proper.

. . . .

14. Lower East Side — Budapest
Cheap, dirty, and crowded with youths looking to get the most bang for their buck. Youth reputations aside, both the LES and Budapest offer some great places to satisfy your hunger cravings, drunk or not.

Link to the rest at Huffpost

Illicit Login Attempts

22 June 2019

Like many websites, TPV uses a variety of plugins to protect the site from hackers.

Here’s a partial report from one of the plugins about the geographical location of the source of attempts to hack into the sacred halls of TPV during the past week.

Low Posting

22 June 2019

PG was involved in a couple of time-consuming professional tasks today and apologizes for scant and late posting.

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