“I had to inhale all the books”: Coates the Canonist

Since Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me dropped a couple of weeks ago, the book has been reviewed by a brigade of critics, including the tidal choruses of Twitter. Most of the serious evaluations have been positive; some are even euphoric. They’re still pouring in, and I’m down with consensus: the man’s prose is exhilarating, his ethical intelligence acute, his historical knowledge vast. The book’s meditation on American racism has immediately become required reading, and I needn’t add to what many other critics have said about that general line of his critique. Here I’d like to focus on a smaller but nevertheless significant aspect of the work: I want to examine the bookworm’s Between the World and Me and speculate briefly on what that says about Coates’s writing mind.

In a recent series of tweets, John Warner (@biblioracle) remarked that in contrast to James Baldwin, to whom he is often compared, Coates has a voice more reminiscent of the classroom than the pulpit. I agree. Granted, Baldwin was just as much of an intellectual, and there is a sermonic element in Coates’s address to his son, but Coates sounds more like Toni Morrison when she’s in critic mode. (A mode where, ironically, she wrote BTWM’s only cover blurb, which names Coates Baldwin’s heir.) He explicitly, repeatedly identifies himself as a reader with catholic tastes, as a self inseparable from an education in books (among other things, of course). BTWM inhabits a corpus of critical theory, much of it “Western,” even though its author, like Malcolm X, the bibliophilic hero of his youth, rejects Eurocentric models of cultural capital that laid claim to this tradition of thought. Plato and Said and Nietzsche and Henry Louis Gates and dozens of other writers inform the book without being openly referenced; others who actually are named, like DuBois and Hurston and Baraka, mark Coates’s entrance into intellectual adulthood. His work underscores the centrality of writing and reading—the centrality of printed texts—to the intellectual equipment of any serious person.

Since childhood, when his mother challenged him to write in response to frustrations, Coates had what he calls “the gift of study” (a gift suppressed in most people.) This readerly gift is the twin of his need to write; and these acts form a critical humanist consciousness. He sees “the craft of writing as the art of thinking.” Writing well requires “a confrontation with my own innocence, my own rationalizations,” for “loose and useless words [a]re not separate from loose and useless thoughts.” Speaking of “the art of journalism,” he deems it “a powerful technology for seekers,” a claim that can be generalized to all ambitious writing. His version of the Socratic examined life is fundamentally textual.

Further, Coates is a canonist. Not in the normative way that, say, Harold Bloom or Matthew Arnold are, because they see canon-formation and maintenance as primarily an Anglo project; but rather in terms of a basic belief that some texts really are better than almost all others and thus worth passing along to younger generations first. To be sure, he envisions a democratic canon which is constantly interrogated and supplemented, but he’s still a Great Books man. Canonicity is a principle, not a specific roster of content.

The canon isn’t the possession of any particular institution, not even Coates’s beloved Howard. When he began working out his canon, he drew upon the frameworks and resources of the university but remained a free agent “made for the library, not the classroom.” His emerging archive of Great Books flowed into what he calls Mecca, the embodied network of black knowledge, imagination, and experience that encompasses and exceeds the school. Mecca is a lifeworld, is all the breathing human treasure of the African diaspora, a diaspora that called him to read everything he could and cull meaning from the pile. At Howard’s Moorland library, he began to understand that “My reclamation would be accomplished, like Malcolm’s, through books, through my own study and exploration.”

His theory and practice of the library rest on the idea of an ecumenical canon where “Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus,” a quip he borrows from the journalist Ralph Wiley (who was responding to Saul Bellow’s dickhead quip that Zulu culture produced no literary consciousness). The canon is fluid and sometimes internally contradictory—he calls it “the discordant tradition”—because the examined life is like that, too. Being “politically conscious” entails “a constant questioning, questioning as ritual, questioning as exploration rather than the search for certainty.” Shades of Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination here. Indeed, canonicity enables inquiry in the first place, inquiry which in turn permits modifications of the canon. I suspect Coates and T.S. Eliot would disagree about a lot of things, but here they are brothers. Between the World and Me embeds historical and political critique in a continuum of reading just as Eliot’s essay “Tradition and Individual Talent” conceptualizes literature as a dialectic between a textual canon and the authorial self.

Coates is also a materialist. Our physical bodies do not merely house preexisting souls, they somehow engender these souls. Mind is brain, brain is mind. There is no God nor any consolatory, absolute form of meaning. History has no telos–“the god of history is an atheist,” Coates assures his son. We, and in particular people who live under assault, as African Americans do, have only an endless struggle to be honest about the past, live with dignity in the present, and perhaps imagine the slow possibility of better futures.

“I tell you now that the question of how one should live within a black body, within a country lost in the Dream,” he writes, “is the question of my life, and the pursuit of this question, I have found, ultimately answers itself.” We have “constant interrogation” of and “confrontation with the brutality” that constitutes American history. His fundamental aim, then, is embodied critique: a representation of what it is like to be an American reader and writer with black skin.

Reading, writing, and thinking: these are physical acts for Coates, and in their concreteness they oppose what he calls the Dream, the normative national story in which America is an innocent, uniquely beneficent place predicated on a healthy bank balance of whiteness, which is less a skin tone than an existential ideal. “The Dream thrives on generalizations,” he warns, “on limiting the number of possible questions, on privileging immediate answers. The Dream is the enemy of all art, courageous thinking, and honest writing.” One of the most trenchant aspects of Between the World and Me is how it enlists the idea of Great Books in a counterattack on the very white-dominant narrative that has long claimed canonicity for itself–that, in fact, has treated print culture in general as an Anglo-European property. This countering move continues a campaign begun by earlier black intellectuals like Henry Louis Gates and Stanley Crouch.

You should buy a copy of BTWM, because it’s a rare honor when you can help a legit thinker get paid. Dude deserves millions. But I hope to look back in fifty years and find the text to be just one part of the Coates wing of the great unfolding American library. Poetry, claims Wallace Stevens, is the scholar’s art. So is the kind of fire Coates has been writing for a half-decade now. The man stores his gunpowder on the bookshelf.

General Ephemera: Post-Christmas Scraps, Tidbits, Recos, Trinkets, Footnotes, Scattershots, and Noble Rags

Somewhere deep in his Letters, Wallace Stevens admits that he never liked Christmas much because the holiday never lives up to advance billing. Being of a similar mind, I’m glad the man is not alive to see that Samsung commercial where this minor actor named Dax Shepard (yes, sentient human parents named him Dax) and his pregnant wife decorate their awful Silver Lake hill cube. (Google it if you want to rot inside a little.) And for a variety of boring reasons I’m not drinking this go-round, which makes the season even more tedious, so to stave off boredom-induced madness, I’ve scrawled some things on the digital wall . Get out your knife and fork and dig in.

  • Eliza Griswold is a wonderful young American poet. Like most poets, her readership is appallingly limited. This is her page at the Poetry (magazine) Foundation. You can buy her debut volume, Wideawake Field, here.
  • Turns out Twitter isn’t just for beefing about sports and harassing female journalists. Some writers have started experimenting with it as a platform for bursts that are worth reading closely, and right now the best Twitter scrivener going is Jeet Heer (@HeerJeet). Here is a link to his aptly titled “A Twitter Essay about Twitter Essays.” Writes Heer: “These are essays in the classical French sense of the word: essaying a topic: an attempt, a provisional thought, a notebook entry.” Imagine if Montaigne had an iPhone!
  • Denis Johnson has a new book out. Set in post-9/11 Africa, it is called The Laughing Monsters. Just ordered my copy. It will be very good. Do you know how I know that? Because Denis Johnson wrote it.
  • Sickened by all the Christmas saccharinalia on the radio? Here is TGR favorite Dwight Yoakam covering a Tom Jones song:

  • Paul Thomas Anderson has turned Thomas Pynchon’s novel Inherent Vice into what looks like a pretty good movie. But you should still read the book. It’s not Gravity’s Rainbow–it won’t kill you, unlike GR, which is much duller than its fame suggests. Want to read a huge Pynchon? Pick up Mason & Dixon.
  • Oh hey, David Lynch is rebooting Twin Peaks. Guess who has two thumbs and doesn’t care? *raises and tilts both thumbs* This guy! The show was leaden and lethargic the first time, but I had to pretend to like it during college and grad school, because all my friends said they adored it. Spoiler alert: Audrey died of meta-boredom.
  • After putting off Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory (1940) for years, I’m finally thigh-deep in its cold currents. Theory as to at least part of Greene’s genius: no novelist is better–though a few are just as good–at subtly using his characters’ psychological states to form the epistemological tenor of the narrative universe, without employing first-person narration or hammy metaphors. For stretches of his best books, a mind shades a world that is still far more than that single mind. This is not Ruskin’s pathetic fallacy: the encompassing world remains ontologically other, it is just that we access it through such masterful filtrations. In other words, Greene takes free indirect style to the VIP level.
  • Before Tinder and OK Cupid and the less libidinous social-media platforms arose to try and distract us from our natural state of crawling loneliness, some mad souls kept the lights on by writing stuff like Notes from Underground (Dostoevsky’s idealist jilted and horrified by the impossibility of perfecting mankind) and In Memoriam A.H.H., Lord Tennyson’s at-times-unbearable cry of anguish over the early death of his best friend. While some associate professors might disagree regarding the latter, neither text is sexual or romantic; both speak to and from within the marrow-grade loneliness one feels when sitting in front of a Mark Rothko painting or listening to Astral Weeks. If you can get through In Memoriam without weeping a couple times, get thee to a doctor.
  • You’ll weep for the sins–the ongoing sins–of America if you read “The Case for Reparations,” the 2014 essay that announced Ta-Nehisi Coates as one of the language’s great young essayists. Erudite, methodical, heart-stopping.
  • Check out my former colleague Robert Samuels’s eminently readable Why Public Higher Education Should Be Free (2013). Samuels’s core thesis is that instead of funneling billions into colleges and universities via federal loans, grants, and byzantine tax breaks which individual students then use to pay tuition, the money could be given directly to schools, who would in turn offer tuition-free education. Sounds bracingly simple, right? But then creditors, including the federal government, would lose that deep, swift stream of interest payments on all those loans, loans that, unlike every other form of consumer debt, cannot be refinanced or discharged in bankruptcy. (My own from graduate school are locked in at 6.8 percent, more than double the prime rate as reported by the Wall Street Journal.) If you die, your next of kin are on the hook for the balance. And that’s why Samuels’s book, smart and humane as it is, will never affect education policy in the current American political economy.
  • The Washington Post’s Radley Balko has the best journalist name, and his book Rise of the Warrior Cop will scare the bejesus out of you. It is a chilling chronicle of the United States’ ongoing decline into a threadbare security state where carbines, tear gas, and razor wire protect the ruling ten percent from the rest of us when we aren’t busy fighting over Black Friday sales.
  • Finally, here is a thing that is funny, one of the best sight/editing gags from The Simpsons

May the new year leave you in peace, dear general readers.

Everybody’s Readin’ for the Weekend: Some General Links

The weekend—the weekend, first of the NFL season—is approaching like an ecstatic freight train, way better than the phallic ice-locomotive in those Coors Light commercials. We at the Reader have gathered some edifying texts, jams, and sundries to share. None of them are football-related, so don’t worry if you aren’t into wonderful things like sports. (You philistine.)

  • Because I’m a bearded person who teaches college in America in 2014, most people assume that my beliefs are smugly left-wing (COEXIST sticker on my Prius and all that), which I suppose in some sense they are. Heads might explode or spin around cartoon-style when I say that I’m a conservative. Conservative how? Basically—here is my elevator talk—conservatism is a general philosophical orientation that sees change as something that ideally occurs within durable sociocultural traditions and institutions; or, failing that, something that unfolds carefully and gradually in opposition to (or as a replacement for) such traditions and institutions. It is a broad attitude toward the historical world, not a collection of particular ideas, and so one could potentially hold views that code as USA LIBERAL but still be a conservative. I’m with Edmund Burke: conservatism is not inherently anti-change. It is just hesitant to approve of change simply because it is change. For example, to support nationwide marriage equality, a.k.a. Gay Marriage, is to take a fundamentally conservative position, because (and I’m repeating Andrew Sullivan here)  it boils down to inviting new cohorts of Americans into a socioeconomically valuable tradition wherein people commit to each other, buy homes, raise kids, and join local communities. Or: even lefty humanities professors are conservative, to the extent that they have bought into the idea that it is worth shielding universities from contemporary market whims. But most of the time, no one buys my shit about this, so it was comforting to see that four years ago Jonny Thakkar, a philosopher who teaches at Princeton, explained the position much more eloquently, organizing his essay “Why Conservatives Should Read Marx” around the tension between free-market ideology (with its emphasis on disruption, global hyper-networking, the flattening of local difference, and the fluid distribution of abstract capital) and conservatism (with its supposed devotion to history, prudence, care, continuity, and stability). As Thakkar points out, it is strange to hear American Republicans proclaiming themselves “free-market conservatives.” Left conservatism, as he puts it, is possible.
  • Here is a YouTube link to the British-born, Nashville-dwelling composer/soul-singer Jamie Lidell’s best song, the title single from his 2005 album Multiply. Play it loud on your iPhone, maybe on the bus, like a dickhead teenager. Trust me, it’s still hot nine years later. I have read that the TV show Grey’s Anatomy, which I don’t watch, used it in some way a few years ago, which is fucking gross. Welcome to capitalism. This nuke-hot track isn’t quite the Dusty Springfield Experience (that moment of first hearing a white singer whose voice would immediately suggest that s/he is African American), but you get a hint of that when Lidell starts hitting those drawn-out vowels around 1:40.

  • Last week Sinclair McKay (what a name!) wrote a deft trifle for the London Telegraph, reviewing Olivia Williams’s Gin, Glorious Gin: How Mother’s Ruin Became the Spirit of London (Headline, 2014). A lovely little book, sounds like. McKay’s review is sharp, too. But allow me to remind everyone that, in terms of pure carnival force, the gold standard of gin-depictions remains William Hogarth’s Beer Street vs. Gin Lane paintings (1751), those exuberant reactions to eighteenth-century London which transcend their immediate historical circumstances and embody larger Anglo-American fears about drugs, as well as our often-misplaced faith in the possibility of prudent self-restraint.

BeerStreet - William Hogarth

Intoxicated people are enjoying (and exploiting) other bodies, and Industry is the standard of one’s social value (or absence of it), and modern urban buildings are beginning to exist! Welcome to capitalism. Hogarth’s middle-class voluptuousness will appeal to visually oriented contemporary audiences. In conclusion, gin is so great. In moderation. Or not in moderation. Whatever.

GinLane -William Hogarth

  • Adam Gopnik remains a crowd-pleaser, his essays erudite and affable. His punningly titled recent article in The New Yorker, “Heaven’s Gaits” (hi-yo!), starts with biomechanical science but shifts to the para-biological realm of cultural history: the lure of walking in big cities, taking in the enormous buffet of faces that Walt Whitman loved. Worth your time, reader. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell that you that there are also some captivating academic studies of walking out there. No, really. They are smooth reads. Accessible. Stop laughing like that! Anyway, here are three favorites: Ian Marshall, Peak Experiences: Walking Meditations on Literature, Nature, and Need (University of Virginia Press, 2003); Roger Gilbert Walks in the World (Northeastern UP, 1991), which is, fair warning, all about poetry; Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking (Penguin, 2001).
  • The Canadian critic Jeet Heer consistently drops intellectual fire on Twitter. If the idea of breaking an already short essay into tweets strikes you as superficial and dumb, you might be surprised by how much liberal intelligence Heer wrings from the Twitter-essay genre. Check out his recent series on why Sideshow Bob is a fascinating Simpsons character. What does it mean to be a “cultural elitist” like Bob? Can you even actually be one in contemporary mass America? Well, can you? Heer pokes that beast. Fantastic.

Have a lovely weekend, y’all. Wear sunscreen and don’t take the brown acid.

Required Reading: “The State of the American Dog”

Hi, I’m Ryan, and sometimes I wish the Internet were made of paper. I worry about our culture’s mind as we transition to a heavily visual, Cloud-hosted mode of living; I distrust the conceit that the humanities will survive and perhaps even prosper through digitization; and I dislike that popular Web writing is often bracketed by and/or sliced up with images that distract readers, myself included, who nonetheless feel anxious without images in view. As a discursive conservative, I think writing-intensive, preferably printed texts are better at conveying complex ideas and feeding thought.

But it would be stupid to claim that these texts are always superior to visually intensive media when it comes to serious inquiry. Done well, hybrid digital texts can rise to the level of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Tom Junod’s essay “The State of the American Dog,” published this week in Esquire (a magazine I’ve griped about before), is in that league. The article would be staggering on its own, but the gallery of pictures that accompanies it might cause things to get a little, uh, misty near your computer. Junod builds the text around his family’s experience owning pit bulls (Dexter and the late Carson), beautiful, emotionally intuitive animals whose lives provide the basis for an ethnography of America that doesn’t reflect well on us. Ever met a pit bull or a pit mix? If their owner isn’t a creep, then that dog is probably one of the best creatures you’ll ever encounter. Pitties are built like high-school wrestlers and bond quickly with people.

The problem is, pits are built like high-school wrestlers and bond quickly with people, which means that terrible humans can easily train them to fight other dogs and generally project menace. The fact that such reptiles are a small minority of owners does not matter much at this point, because for thirty years American popular media has slotted pit bulls into paranoid cultural fantasies about race (the canine lieutenant of black/brown gang-bangers FROM THE CITY), while at the same time the breed has fallen victim to the worst impulses of a frantically consumerist society. (When Junod describes watching a young professional casually dump her pet at a shelter before work because her new condo doesn’t allow dogs, you’ll want to scream for several reasons.) What this means is that today Petey from Our Gang would most likely die in a shelter or on the street.

The demographic shifts that are transforming America’s human population find a mirror in the demographic shifts that are transforming America’s canine one, with the same effect: More and more we become what we somehow can’t abide. We might accept pit bulls personally, but America still doesn’t accept them institutionally, where it counts; indeed, apartment complexes and insurance companies are arrayed in force against them. And so are we: For although we adopt them by the thousands, we abandon them by the millions. The ever-expanding population of dogs considered pit bulls feeds an ever-expanding population of dogs condemned as pit bulls, and we resolve this rising demographic pressure in the way to which we’ve become accustomed: in secret, and in staggering numbers. We have always counted on our dogs to tell us who we are. But what pit bulls tell us is that who we think we are is increasingly at odds with what we’ve turned out to be.

Gore Vidal liked to point out that Americans (“The United States of Amnesia”) don’t have much of a historical memory unless memory suits a present desire. It strikes me that this also enables us to feel less and less shame about how little our contemporary institutions and behaviors resemble the founding theory of America. As Junod has it:

America is two countries now—the country of its narrative and the country of its numbers, with the latter sitting in judgment of the former. In the stories we tell ourselves, we are nearly always too good: too soft on criminals, too easy on terrorists, too lenient with immigrants, too kind to animals. In the stories told by our numbers, we imprison, we drone, we deport, and we euthanize with an easy conscience and an avenging zeal.

But hey, they’re vicious kill-beasts, so they had it coming.

The One Where I Disagree (Slightly) with Rebecca Schuman

It’s a well-known true fact (see, students, see how bad that sounds?) that we here at TGR are fans of Rebecca Schuman. She’s a big reason why people are talking more about the labor problem in higher education, which for too long was a kind of open secret kept from graduate students until they felt like it was too late to bail out. For her advocacy on this front, we cannot thank her enough.

This doesn’t mean, however, that we never disagree with Dr. Schuman. I understand her arguments in favor of grade inflation, but I’m not persuaded by them. Inflating grades just contributes to our culture of credentialism where merely starting something is seen as practically finishing it. I may be fighting a futile battle, but I think being totally honest with students matters. Grades are one way of doing that. But again, I take Schuman’s point and understand why someone in a more contingent position than me (I exist in a middle space between adjuncts and tenure-track folks) might inflate grades “Because Screw It.”

Earlier this week Schuman wrote another piece that I think is a little wrong-headed. If you read this blog, there’s a good chance you’ve at least heard of the White House’s new plan to rate colleges like we rate blenders. Schuman does a great job of describing and pointing out some flaws in the plan, but her general defense of it boils down to this: “Colleges are run by corrupt administrators. These corrupt administrators are mad about what President Obama and HIS team of corrupt administrators are doing. The plan is therefore worth supporting in spite of its flaws because it pisses off the people I dislike more.” It’s “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” logic, which again, I get. But in the case of the specific metrics the White House is pushing, this new rating system has the chance to make an already twisted system even worse.

As Schuman rightly notes:

Another important concern I share with the critics of the system is tying aid to attrition rates, which are often higher in schools that serve more first-generation and minority college students—the very students deserving of more aid. The White House should recognize that without some serious caveats, tying aid to retention would not encourage better student support, so much as coerce faculty to pass all students, no matter what. I should know—my first teaching job ever was for a for-profit school in New Jersey. On my first day of work, the dean told me, point blank: “Everybody has to pass. Otherwise we don’t get their government money.”

This is frankly my biggest fear with this rating system, but the problem goes beyond simply fetishizing graduation rates. The front end of this problem is privileging “accessibility.” People define this term differently, but the bottom line is that we do not have a college accessibility problem in this country. We have debt problems, funding problems, labor problems, administrative problems, and many other problems, but what we don’t have is too few colleges (as of 2011, there were over 4,500 colleges in the United States) or, thanks to the predatory loan system run by the federal government, a lack of funds to pay for tuition up front. If we continue to focus on expanding access and credentialing people, it will allow the federal and state governments to avoid doing what actually needs to be done: radically reform K-12 education so that most people don’t need to go to college.

President Obama’s plan makes sense in light of his “winning the future” rhetoric that equates college education for all with a booming American marketplace. But the strength or weakness of the American economy has very little to do with how many people have college degrees. We can give everyone a STEM degree today (which we might as well if we basically destroy college standards) and nothing will change. What would fundamentally change our economy is making a high school degree matter again by implementing the kinds of traditional educational methods (small classes, engaged and autonomous teachers, difficult curricula) of posh private schools at public schools, particularly those in poor areas. This would mean concessions by state governments, federal officials, and teachers’ unions, but given how much we spend on education compared to a place like, I don’t know, Finland, it’s clear we can and must do a lot better for our money. More testing, technology, Common Core, and rejiggering college rankings aren’t the answers. We know what works, but unfortunately there isn’t a huge lobbying group for old-school humanism these days. If we want to actually fix education in this country though, making a college degree easier to get is precisely the wrong way to go about it.