Lexical Undertakings - #1
Updated: May 31, 2018
Books read in February and March of 2018:
In Praise of Messy Lives by Katie Roiphe
Popular Crime by Bill James
I, Claudius by Robert Graves
Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine
But What if We’re Wrong by Chuck Klosterman
I downloaded Katie Roiphe’s 2012 collection of essays In Praise of Messy Lives because her life seemed to be in a bit of a mess. In early January of this year, Roiphe was writing an article about the Shitty Media Men List for Harper’s Magazine. A Twitter rumor ran rampant that she was planning to dox the creator of the list in the article. In response to the rumor, Moira Donegan wrote an article for The Cut, claiming the list for herself and explaining her reasons, which blew the whole thing up even further. Roiphe insisted that the rumor wasn’t true - she would never print someone’s name in this context without permission - and that Harper’s Magazine had contacted Moira Donegan for nothing more than fact-checking on background.
As the saga unfolded, I read a bit about both women involved without really choosing a side. And Katie Roiphe struck me as fascinating.
Katie Roiphe is Harvard educated, the daughter of prominent New York people Herman and Anne Roiphe. She teaches at New York University’s Journalism Institute and has kids, who I’m sure are well read and began drinking coffee at a young age. It seems like she has the type of life I would have tried to carve out for myself if I had known a bit more at 18 and also had become an adult on the other side of the Internet.
Also, she once inspired someone on Gawker to write a poem entitled “Shut Up Katie Roiphe” based on her comments that perhaps all of the parents who loved the novelty non-children’s book Go the Fuck to Sleep ought to do a little more fucking themselves. Which is kind of one of the funniest, most 2005 things I’ve ever heard.
In Praise of Messy Lives was published in 2012. The essays are split into four parts, ‘Life and Times’, ‘Books’, ‘The Way We Live Now’, and ‘The Internet, Etc.’ but Roiphe herself admits in her introduction that the categories are amorphous. But they all do feel like what Katie Roiphe might talk to a weekly coffee date about. Essays like “The Allure of Messy Lives” and “The Child is King” discuss the pitfalls of the lives and parentings habits of rich and successful people. Despite not having children, and not being particularly rich or successful (I actually live such a childless existence that the first time I held a baby unsupervised for more than a few minutes was in December), I found Roiphe’s discussion of anxious American parenting fascinating. It’s partly because I like to think how broad parenting philosophies like this are going to affect the world I’ll live in ten years from now. And it’s partly because who doesn’t like feeling slightly superior to the rich and successful?
For every essay that sharply looks at and chronicles modern life, there is one that just doesn’t seem to get it. “The Language of Fakebook”, which ascertains that people are not their real selves online and “Whiplash Girlchild in the Dark”, which is breathless in the idea that some people use this new fangled Internet thing for dirty submissive sex feel horribly dated. But, all in all, the essays hold up as the type of thing that someone who has had a poem “Shut Up, Katie Roiphe” written about them would write. She’s like the Roseanne Barr of the extremely upper-class Manhattan publishing world.
Popular Crime by Bill James is one of the strangest non-fiction books I’ve ever read. Bill James is an apparently popular baseball writer whose work ‘changed the way we think about baseball’. Unsurprisingly, I had never heard of him before I stumbled onto this book. James is a crime-book mega enthusiast and uses his passion to write about the most popular crimes throughout US history. He’s also vaguely trying to prove that crime stories shouldn’t be considered as low-brow as they are, but he’s mostly just enjoying the process of researching, reading, and writing about a topic he cares about. As a result, Popular Crime reads like having a long conversation with your very passionate and slightly drunk friend.
That sounds like a criticism. It’s not. I adore reading books by people who don’t think the way I think. It’s the closest I can get to jumping into someone’s brain. Popular Crime reads more like thoughts laid bare than almost anything I’ve ever read. I’m not sure at all why anyone published Bill James talking this much, but I enjoyed the hell out of reading it.
I, Claudius is a classic by Robert Graves that I only read half of this month, but did read all of at one point, so I’m going to write about it anyway. As an American in 2018 I think about the Roman Empire frequently. More than I did when, say, I was an American in 2014, which is why I picked up this book again this month. I, Claudius is really two books -- I, Claudius and Claudius the God although the editions I’ve seen have printed them one after the other. Graves’ ‘autobiography’ of Claudius was first published in 1934 and covers the first four Emperors of Rome -- Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, and Claudius. Claudius had a limp and was slightly deaf; because of this, his family shunned him, made fun of him, excluded him from office, and called him simple. He wasn’t. Instead he was an able administrator, a prolific historian, and an ambitious builder. Graves reimagines him as a staunch Republican (as in lover of the Roman republic) who, over the years, came to hate what Rome had become. When his hand is forced and he becomes an emperor, he chooses to be an ineffective leader in the hopes that eventually Romans will rise up, wrestle control from his family, and restore the Republic.
The whole saga, which is both intensely dramatic and downright funny, reminds me of when Trump first won the Republican (as in….honestly, I’m not even sure how to describe this one) nomination. People wondered if he was secretly a liberal, hoping to shock us all into action and change with his display of sheer ineptitude. Whether you believe that or not, reading about the Romans is a welcome reminder that the arc of history is impossibly long.
Towards the end of February, I went to a volunteer event with my boyfriend at a local elementary. We ended up at the school library, scanning in books for compliance’s sake. I was in the fiction section. It seemed like I had read every other book I picked up to scan. I’m a voracious reader now. But, as a child, it was all I seemed to do. Story after story after story, consumed constantly.
I have never had that appetite with adult fiction. Of course, there have been adult novels that I have loved (Never Let Me Go and Funny Girl stand out) but beyond the realm of deep fantasy books, it’s never really been my thing. I don’t read a ton of young adult fiction now either. I’ve just stopped reading much fiction altogether.
But, we were at the school, and I was remembering all of the joy I got from all of these books. So the next time I was home alone on a Friday, I drank some wine (so I would feel like an adult) and borrowed Ella Enchanted from the Libby app. And you know what? I had a blast that night. The book is still funny, still charming, and still ridiculously romantic. Gail Carson Levine retells the story of Cinderella in a way that makes sense. The prince and Cinderella have actually been friends for years and find the glass slippers together in an abandoned castle. Cinderella has a drop of fairy blood in her, giving her impossibly small, unique feet. And, most importantly, she is cursed with obedience and forced to follow every direct order given to her, which is how she ends up as a servant in her own home in the first place. Also she’s funny and a good mimic and slides down stair rails.
There are two possibilities as to why I found Ella Enchanted so delightful and find so many adult novels tedious. The first is that I am immature and find ambiguity in stories annoying. And the second is that authors like Levine are writing for the enjoyment of many children instead of a select few authors. And that no one is likely to tell you that a book like Ella Enchanted is just too nuanced, complicated, and metaphorical for you if you didn’t happen to like it very much.
Finally, I read But What If We’re Wrong by Chuck Klosterman, which is a series of essays (sort of) trying to imagine what school children in about the year 3018 will be learning about the times we live in. The premise wears a little thin sometimes, particularly as it’s re-explained for each new idea. What author will be considered the greatest author of the beginning of the 21st century? Which musician will stand in to explain all of rock and roll to the youth? Are there scientific theories and laws we are sure about now that will one day prove as wrong as Aristotle was? Klosterman keeps repeating that he isn’t more qualified than anyone else to answer these questions despite the fact that he clearly thinks he is more qualified because he wrote a book about it. The questions themselves are interesting, and having an author barely pretend to have answers is refreshing. But What If We’re Wrong? looks in the opposite direction of the Romans but still reminds me we just have to keep going.