Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Hound of the Baskervilles: Things May Not Be As They Seem

This week's reading of Conan Doyle's Hound of the Baskervilles gives me to understand that I am still learning how to read the novel. Last week I confidently asserted that Conan Doyle had shut down a possible path to solving the mystery. I heartily approved of this because, as I noted at length, it's important not to give your story--or your reader--too many options, otherwise the mystery seems too easy to solve. You need to set up plausible obstacles for your detective, to enable a satisfying process of unraveling the mystery.

Well, not so much. That is, the above is still true, as far as it goes, but at least one of the paths has turned out not to be permanently shut off. Having been dispatched on a fact-finding mission to Baskerville Hall--minus Holmes, for the time being--Watson discovers that the telegram he and Holmes sent to Barrymore, in order to determine whether he was at home, was not actually delivered into his hands. This means the mysterious bearded stranger who was following Henry Baskerville in London could plausibly be Barrymore after all. Therefore, contrary to my assertion last week, no path can be considered fully closed down until the book is closed. There still needs to be a mechanism for deferring various threads, for making one seem more important than the other at various times. But the world of Sherlock Holmes, I am learning, is one in which you can never quite be certain that you know what you know. This is why Dostoevsky loved detective stories: they're about epistemology.

This whole approach to reading the book, and the world, gets underscored many times over as Watson begins poking around Baskerville Hall and the surrounding moors. First, in the middle of the night, he wakes to the sound of a woman wailing. In the morning he and Baskerville ask Barrymore about it, who replies: "There are only two women in the house, Sir Henry," he answered. "One is the scullery-maid, who sleeps in the other wing. The other is my wife, and I can answer for it that the sound could not have come from her." However:
And yet he lied as he said it, for it chanced that after breakfast I met Mrs. Barrymore in the long corridor with the sun full upon her face. She was a large, impassive, heavy-featured woman with a stern set expression of mouth. But her tell-tale eyes were red and glanced at me from between swollen lids. It was she, then, who wept in the night, and if she did so her husband must know it. Yet he had taken the obvious risk of discovery in declaring that it was not so. Why had he done this? And why did she weep so bitterly? Already round this pale-faced, handsome, black-bearded man there was gathering an atmosphere of mystery and of gloom.

Then, walking back from his trip to the post office, where he discovers the slip-up with the telegram, Watson is accosted by a man introducing himself as Stapleton, who seems to know an amazing amount about the Baskerville case and Sherlock Holmes's involvement therein. Watson deflects Stapleton's questions about Holmes, to which Stapleton responds: "You are perfectly right to be wary and discreet." So are we, Conan Doyle is telling us, as Watson is our representative in the story. Still, Watson accepts Stapleton's invitation to lunch, as Holmes has tasked him with "study[ing] the neighbours upon the moor." But can Watson trust what Stapleton tells him? We don't know.
Even the landscape participates in this duplicity, as Stapleton points out:
"...You see, for example, this great plain to the north here with the queer hills breaking out of it. Do you observe anything remarkable about that?"
"It would be a rare place for a gallop."

"You would naturally think so and the thought has cost several their lives before now. You notice those bright green spots scattered thickly over it?"
"Yes, they seem more fertile than the rest."

Stapleton laughed.
"That is the great Grimpen Mire," said he. "A false step yonder means death to man or beast. Only yesterday I saw one of the moor ponies wander into it. He never came out. I saw his head for quite a long time craning out of the bog-hole, but it sucked him down at last. Even in dry seasons it is a danger to cross it, but after these autumn rains it is an awful place. And yet I can find my way to the very heart of it and return alive. By George, there is another of those miserable ponies!"

Sadly, Watson sees the truth of the Mire with his own eyes, and let's not dwell on that any more than we have to. (I recently stopped reading a book I was otherwise mostly enjoying because a character killed a puppy. But I will soldier on here.) The point I wish to make here is that in Holmes-world, you must use your eyes, and all your senses, constantly and intensely. Your antenna are always up. At the same time, you must distrust the signals those antennae give you. You're caught in a constant tug-of-war between discovery and doubt--a sort of mire in itself, in which Conan Doyle hopes to trap you, the reader.
I've often wondered how mystery writers contend with the need to dump information on the reader. What are the alternatives to having some witness magically appear and provide, in large chunks of dialog, key information that the reader and detective need to go forward? How do you keep that from just being tedious exposition? Conan Doyle doesn't avoid the large chunks of dialog, as is clear in this section. But so far, all this exposition all coming from people we have at least some reason not to trust. So we are never sure about the status of the information--or of information, period. Maybe it's entirely false, or only partially true, or true, but not in the ways we might think. We're very much off balance and becoming more so, and that's a good thing.

Friday, January 27, 2012

What is vocabulary for?

Back in the day, when there were no iPads and we did our homework on the backs of shovels using lumps of coal (boy, did teachers hate grading papers then), we once had to do the following assignment: Write a story about something you did yesterday. Then rewrite it, replacing as many "little" words as possible with "bigger" words. This was an exercise in stretching our vocabularies. I can't remember what grade this was, possibly third, or maybe fifth (it couldn't have been fourth, as I had a particularly memorable and colorful--OK, frightening--teacher that year, so I would remember that). Anyway, I distinctly recall hearing another kid reading one of her improved sentences, which came out: "My friend and I purchased each other Christmas gifts." I have remembered this sentence all these years, because of how it grated on my pedantic little ears. What, I silently wondered, was wrong with "bought"? Swapping it out for "purchased" made no useful difference in meaning, and it wrecked the grammar of the sentence besides. But the kid had done the assignment correctly, and so was praised.

Now, I'm not saying this exercise was a terrible idea--it was just an exercise, and even a rather inventive one. But it did convey the idea that the purpose of using "big" words (two syllables are better than one!) was simply to sound more impressive, more educated. I honestly think that this is still what most students believe when they are made to study "vocabulary" for various tests. I once worked on a vocabulary CD-ROM whose selling point was that it spat words randomly at the user, and he or she racked up points by selecting the correct meaning for each one before time ran out. Now, it isn't news that context makes it a whole lot easier to learn new words, and that a richer vocabulary develops most efficiently, and least painfully, through extensive reading. But the question still remains: Apart from getting through all those damned tests, is the point of improving one's vocabulary really just to sound educated? To impress potential employers and mates with your great big verbal display?

A much better reason--which only occurred to me rather recently--is that language is a set of tools. The more words you have at your disposal, the greater the precision of those tools. If you know only the word "buy," you have a hammer, and you have to use it on everything from a rock to a Ming vase. If you know "buy," "purchase," "acquire," "obtain," etc.--and understand the subtle differences they make in different contexts--you have a scalpel, or a laser beam, or a pair of tweezers, or a brush. Words are for finding and expressing meaning in the most accurate way possible. They're for refinement. A large vocabulary gives you not only options, but a sense that there are options. Maybe you can't even think of the right word immediately--but knowing that it, or at least something close to it, exists will make you pause and work on that particular thought or sentence, until it says what you need it to say. The thought, the sentence, and civilization itself are all better for that effort.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Hound of the Baskervilles: Closing Off Possibilities

In this week's reading of Hound, I'd like to look at a technique that is probably especially important to mystery writers. Then again, aren't all works of fiction mysteries in some way? The questions, in the end, are the same: What happened in the past? What is going to happen? How will the characters understand what happened, and how will we?

Also, I'll wager that all fiction writers, especially novelists, have run into the problem of having seemingly too many options to choose from. At a certain point in the writing process, you start to realize that the story could go, well, a thousand different ways. How do you know which one is right? Having experienced this a ton of times myself, I'll say that the only solution is just to plunge ahead through the weeds until you crash into a brick wall, then backtrack to the fork in the road and try another branch. (How's that for an overgrown thicket of cliches?) Otherwise, your fate may be paralysis.

Having eventually chosen a path, however, you will still have to go back and clear it for your readers in the revision process. That is, you have to make sure your reader--while possibly seeing all the different forks in the road that you could have taken--understands why the path you took is the right one. You can't leave a bunch of loopholes open in the plot, or in your characters' motivations, which would immediately allow your protagonist to solve the problem easily--and bring the story to a dead halt. It's the old "why doesn't someone just kill Ahab?" question, which you have to resolve in some convincing way.

In the early going of Hound, Conan Doyle shows us one way to block off possible avenues for solving the mystery too early. Sir Henry Baskerville, heir to the Baskerville estate and possibly to its giant, slavering devil-dog, has just arrived in London, where he receives this immortal message: "As you value your life or your reason keep away from the moor." All but one of the words, "moor," were clipped from a newspaper and pasted onto a piece of paper. Holmes, through his obsessive knowledge of fonts, determines that the newspaper was yesterday's Times. He also determines that the letter was created in a hotel room, because the word "moor" (the only one that did not appear in the paper, so had to be written by hand), is in the kind of dried-out ink you'd only find in a hotel room. (Don't you hate that?)

So, to find out who sent the note, Holmes pays a kid to go to every hotel in the area and ask to see yesterday's trash--looking for a Times with words cut out of it. Meanwhile, he and Watson have also spotted a mysterious bearded man following Baskerville in a cab, and Sir Henry suggests it might be Barrymore, the butler of Baskerville Hall. Holmes sends a telegram addressed to Barrymore there, to see if he's home. Soon:

Just before dinner two telegrams were handed in. The first ran:—

"Have just heard that Barrymore is at the Hall.—BASKERVILLE." The second:—

"Visited twenty-three hotels as directed, but sorry, to report unable to trace cut sheet of Times.—CARTWRIGHT."
"There go two of my threads, Watson. There is nothing more stimulating than a case where everything goes against you. We must cast round for another scent."

Holmes is right; there is nothing more stimulating than a case (or a story) where everything goes against you. Obstacles are mounting, increasing the challenge to Holmes, and thus allowing the story to move onward and upward. The key point is that the obstacles mount plausibly: without slowing the story down too much, Conan Doyle shows Holmes addressing two clear paths to solving the case, and being convincingly thwarted by each one. Then, literally in the next line, a third path opens up:

"We have still the cabman who drove the spy."

"Exactly. I have wired to get his name and address from the Official Registry. I should not be surprised if this were an answer to my question."

The ring at the bell proved to be something even more satisfactory than an answer, however, for the door opened and a rough-looking fellow entered who was evidently the man himself.

"I got a message from the head office that a gent at this address had been inquiring for 2704," said he. "I've driven my cab this seven years and never a word of complaint. I came here straight from the Yard to ask you to your face what you had against me."

The relative ease of contacting the cabman would have been really annoying, if Conan Doyle had not preceded it with the failed efforts at locating the newspaper and identifying Barrymore. The cabman's appearance still seems a little convenient, but now we suspect whatever information he tells us will not be as helpful or as straightforward as it might otherwise seem. The chapter is called "Three Broken Threads," after all, and Holmes has just said that everything is going against him in this case. The author has trained us to read his story as Holmes would: with enthusiastic suspicion.

We shall see...

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Parsnip, black-eyed pea, kale, and barley stew

So this blog is "mostly about fiction and writing," but it is sometimes about food and cooking. Especially vegan food and cooking. And cooking is like writing, right? It definitely is the way I go about it: 1) Open vegetable drawer (analogous to brain and/or journal). 2) Say: Jeez, I gotta use up these things before they rot (analogous to ideas/fading youth/ambition). 3) Wonder/worry/chew nails/pace. 4) Put stuff together and see what happens.

The best guidebook ever for the above approach to cooking is Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. I recommend ordering yourself a copy and then spending an afternoon just paging through it. The only downside to this otherwise delightful and enlightening experience is that the book weighs about 50 pounds, which precludes my favorite reading style of lying on my back and resting the book on my stomach. It will crush you. Anyway, for those not familiar with Bittman's deal, this is less a cookbook in the ordinary sense (although there are recipes), and more a giant permission slip to try new ingredients, or use common ingredients in new ways. He's not big on precision; instructions tend toward "throw in some more x if it looks like there isn't enough," and the repeated injunction "don't worry."

My own recent stroll through the book brought two neglected items to my attention, barley and parsnips. The former is a great way to add starch/bulk to soup or stew, without it getting all huge and slimy, as pasta does. The latter add a rather exotic, sweet taste to the proceedings--a nice alternative to carrots.

With those ingredients, a bunch of rapidly expiring dino kale, and a bag of black-eyed peas on hand, I concocted the following, and it is really damn good. Especially on a cold evening...

Parsnip, black-eyed pea, kale, and barley stew

A couple tbsp of olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
4 medium parsnips, peeled and diced (remove woody core if necessary)
1 cup dried black-eyed peas or 1 can cooked
1 bunch dino kale or other green, chopped and tough ribs removed
1/3 cup pearled barley
1 28-oz can crushed or diced tomatoes
4 cups water or vegetable stock
Salt and pepper to taste

Saute chopped onion in olive oil till transparent. Add parsnips, and cook until both onion and parsnips begin to brown. Add everything else (note: if you are using canned black-eyed peas, don't add until about 15 minutes before the stew is done). Bring to boil, reduce heat, and partially cover. Simmer for about an hour, till beans and barley are soft.

Shop Indie Bookstores

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Hound of the Baskervilles: Establishing Character through Dialog II

Moving slowly through Hound, I am discovering, Holmes-like, that there is much to discover. Last time I wrote about how the early dialog between Holmes and Watson quickly established the nuances of their relationship, and thus their characters. Now let's take a look at the spoken language of the first guest-star, one James Mortimer:

"Glad to meet you, sir. I have heard your name mentioned in connection with that of your friend. You interest me very much, Mr. Holmes. I had hardly expected so dolichocephalic a skull or such well-marked supra-orbital development. Would you have any objection to my running my finger along your parietal fissure? A cast of your skull, sir, until the original is available, would be an ornament to any anthropological museum. It is not my intention to be fulsome, but I confess that I covet your skull."

To which Holmes astutely responds:

"You are an enthusiast in your line of thought, I perceive, sir, as I am in mine," said he. "I observe from your forefinger that you make your own cigarettes. Have no hesitation in lighting one." 

Holmes helps the reader feel like a smartie here, by stating the obvious: Mortimer is an "enthusiast" (Watson prefers the term "strange")--an obsessive, in other words.

This leads me to the point of this week's reading. On a web site I recently visited, one agent said she particularly looks for stories in which the dialog is vivid and distinctive: that is, all the characters should not sound the same. I think this aspect of dialog-writing often gets overlooked; we get hung up on what the characters are saying, and making sure they say it in the least boring way possible. But, although all these guys all come from a single source--the author's brain--they must appear to reflect their own separate and distinctive development as human beings. For example, Mortimer is a phrenology nut--which means his language is peppered with the language of his profession, and also reflects the rhythms of obsession: his stated attempt not to be "fulsome" suggests he's been criticized for ranting on and on about skulls before, but his preemptive apologies only reveal his interest more strongly.

In other words, to be convincing and distinctive, characters need to use language in ways that reflect their particular physical and emotional circumstances. A doctor is going to use precise anatomical language, which means that if we are creating a doctor character, we have to become familiar with such language and the ways in which that particular doctor would deploy it. She might speak in a notably detached way about, say, the progress of cancer in a lung. Or, for a different effect, she might speak in peculiarly loving detail about it, unsettling her interlocutors and readers. Or she might convey an unusual capacity for empathy by constantly checking to see if her patient understands her terms. The point is, because the doctor is this particular doctor, she isn't going to sound like that other doctor over there. Mortimer and Watson are both men of science (Mortimer says he's a mere "dabbler,") but they don't talk the same way. On the other hand, neither Mortimer nor Watson is going to use a term like "that lumpy thingie on your head"; their scientific backgrounds enable them to know the contemporary, technical language for it.

See what I mean? This is not to say you should lard up your characters' dialog with "distinctive" (i.e. distracting) verbal tics and professional jargon. But it is worth thinking about different people you know in real life, and how they all express themselves a little differently, even if they're in the same profession. And if they're from different professions and backgrounds, their speech should differ accordingly, if still subtly. Finally, speech reflects temperament. If someone's impatient, don't just tell us that: have him speak impatiently.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Writing as meditation

At one time I had something like a real meditation practice. That has not been the case for awhile now, largely because I can't figure out how to meditate with cats either a) climbing on me or b) hurling themselves at the closed door. No, really: this is a good excuse.

At any rate, I am now applying meditation techniques to my writing. For the last several weeks I have just not felt good about anything I've written, which has led me to put whatever creative energy I have into thinking up excuses for why I don't have to write today. The bottom line is, I don't want to write if it's going to suck, and there seems to be a better than even chance these days that it will.

So what I've decided to do is institute my own personal NaNoWriMo, except without, necessarily, the "No(vel)" part. From now till the end of January, I am going to write 1,000 words per day which are nominally related to the story idea I am currently least repelled by. I am not going to craft my sentences or delete sections that seem irrelevant, and above all I am not going to pounce on the thing and strangle the life out of it by declaring: Aha! I know what this is about! This is definitely a novel/novella/short story, from the point of view of the alien baby, and there's a big shoot-em-up at the end! There is to be no, repeat, NO anticipation.

This is related to the technique in Insight Meditation in which you don't try to stop yourself from thinking, but rather notice the fact that you are thinking, without pursuing any particular thought. You notice, and then return to the breath, as they say. So I notice the anticipation (This is a novel! I know it! Ooh, I can really build on that scene!) but make no commitments to it. I just go back to churning out words.The words are the breath.

Like meditation, this process sometimes really feels like crap. But I have become aware of how little tolerance I have both for writing poorly, and for not knowing what I am doing--that is, not being able to anticipate the outcome. In the past, it seems like I have been able to work around this and get stuff done anyway, but now, for whatever reason, this is not so. Therefore I am resorting to the kinds of writing advice one always gets in beginning writing classes, and which I have generally scorned.

I really don't know what will happen, but at least I'm writing.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

The Hound of the Baskervilles: Establishing Character through Dialog

So it's the new year, and I resolve to be less lame. Which means that, among other endeavors, I am going to resume the Borrowed Fire series on this blog. In this series, I read works of classic literature, all available on Project Gutenberg, in order to see what contemporary writers like me can learn from them. So far it's been all dead white guys--a consequence, though not a necessity, of the whole public-domain thing, but they still have one or two things they might teach us. And since we've had our vampire (a super-dead white guy), we must now turn to werewolves, or potential werewolves, or at least large dogs, and so let us dive into The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle!

Before we begin, I should mention that I had never read a word of Conan Doyle before about an hour ago. However, I have recently become obsessed with detective stories, spy stories, and stories of deduction in general, and have spent spent many hours watching both Jeremy Brett and Benedict Cumberbatch portray Sherlock Holmes. I also just saw the first Robert Downey, Jr. version on a plane, and it was better than I expected, but there was little attempt to make the character Holmes-like, at least as I have come to understand him. Jude Law's Watson is another matter, as today's rumination will, I think, bring out. Anyway, what I wish to stress here is that I'm coming to this novel with a bunch of pre-set expectations and at least some general knowledge about the characters--as is likely true of just about everyone who's had any contact with Western culture. Sherlock is an icon, on a par with, I dunno, Santa Claus, and Watson is his humble sidekick and sounding board.

But what is that genius-sidekick relationship actually like? Well, it's quite nuanced. Hound starts off with Holmes challenging Watson to use his "system" to deduce as much as possible about the owner of a walking stick, which has been left behind in their apartment. Watson gamely offers that it likely belongs to a country doctor, and deduces from the inscription on the stick that it was given to the doctor by a hunting club. Holmes then bathes Watson in backhanded compliments:

"Really, Watson, you excel yourself," said Holmes, pushing back his chair and lighting a cigarette. "I am bound to say that in all the accounts which you have been so good as to give of my own small achievements you have habitually underrated your own abilities. It may be that you are not yourself luminous, but you are a conductor of light. Some people without possessing genius have a remarkable power of stimulating it. I confess, my dear fellow, that I am very much in your debt."

He had never said as much before, and I must admit that his words gave me keen pleasure, for I had often been piqued by his indifference to my admiration and to the attempts which I had made to give publicity to his methods. I was proud, too, to think that I had so far mastered his system as to apply it in a way which earned his approval. He now took the stick from my hands and examined it for a few minutes with his naked eyes. Then with an expression of interest he laid down his cigarette, and carrying the cane to the window, he looked over it again with a convex lens.

"Interesting, though elementary," said he as he returned to his favourite corner of the settee. "There are certainly one or two indications upon the stick. It gives us the basis for several deductions."

"Has anything escaped me?" I asked with some self-importance. "I trust that there is nothing of consequence which I have overlooked?"

"I am afraid, my dear Watson, that most of your conclusions were erroneous. When I said that you stimulated me I meant, to be frank, that in noting your fallacies I was occasionally guided towards the truth. Not that you are entirely wrong in this instance. The man is certainly a country practitioner. And he walks a good deal."

In this exchange, Conan Doyle conveys the light S/M dynamic that has clearly been going on between these two for some time. Watson, habitually humble, is embarrassed to admit to us, his readers, that Holmes's words give him "keen pleasure," especially in light of his usual "indifference to my admiration." He strongly desires Holmes's approval, and seems further driven to seek it the more Holmes dismisses him. Of course this means that he can't, or won't, listen to closely to what Holmes is actually saying to him, which is more along the lines of "thank you for being such an idiot; if you were smarter, I couldn't use you." In fact, I myself was a little caught up in rooting for Watson to receive some genuine praise from his hero; it wasn't until Holmes announced that most of Watson's conclusions were "erroneous" that I went back and marveled at the blithe condescension of Holmes's compliments. Watson is a little stung, and seeks reassurance, which Holmes rather patronizingly gives him:

"Then I was right."

"To that extent."

"But that was all."

"No, no, my dear Watson, not all—by no means all. I would suggest, for example, that a presentation to a doctor is more likely to come from a hospital than from a hunt, and that when the initials 'C.C.' are placed before that hospital the words 'Charing Cross' very naturally suggest themselves."

So Watson, his head duly patted, is back in line, ready to be slapped down again. We've got some serious co-dependence issues here. But this is precisely what makes these characters more than just a smart guy and the admirer of the smart guy. Watson makes an especially poignant stand-in for us readers. We see that the admirer's admiration, while genuine, also costs him emotionally; in this, we feel for him, because admiration is rarely pure, or purely rewarding, in real life. Watson is the unrequited lover, hurt by Holmes repeatedly but unable to quit him. This is an interesting analogy for readers of fiction generally. Like Watson, perhaps we, too, want something from literary characters--love, or at least acknowledgment--that they are utterly incapable of giving us. We are so close to them, yet they elude us in the end.

Through this early dialog, Conan Doyle has given us an emotional investment in the mystery that we'd otherwise be lacking. Why should we care, right from the beginning, about the provenance of this walking stick? Because of Watson's--and Holmes's--own personal investments in knowing, around which their whole relationship is structured. This relationship raises and complicates the emotional stakes of deduction, which would otherwise be a purely intellectual exercise.

Oh, about Jude Law as Watson. Partly because he's just too gorgeous to play it otherwise, Law eschews the fond, slightly doddering exasperation of other Watsons. He's sharp, witty, and gets seriously pissed at Holmes--rightly raising the question of why he sticks with him.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

What art is for: yet another explanation

Reading Adam Hochschild's review of Laurent Dubois's new book, Haiti: The Aftershocks of History, in the NYT Book Review, I was drawn to these lines: "American officials declared, accurately enough, that the Haitian government was in bad shape and needed reform. But as the troops on the ground discovered, like their counterparts in Iraq and Afghanistan, no one likes to be reformed at the point of a foreigner’s gun."

We've all read sentences like that last one hundreds of times in the past, oh, ten years, right? The point seems simple enough, and yet, as stark as that reality is, the failure of huge numbers of policy makers to understand it is more so. This problem goes beyond the well-known failures to become familiar with the invadee's language, history, culture, religion, etc., though these are encompassed by the overall problem: the failure of imagination itself.  In Haiti as in other misadventures, invading powers could not--or would not--imagine what they might do if some other country tried to impose its values on them by force, even if they agreed with some or most of those values.

In literature classes I've taught over the years, we've often discussed the role of fiction in fostering empathy. In fiction, we are given direct insight into the minds of other people, albeit fictional people, a position we are absolutely denied in real life. (In fact, even in nonfiction works in which the author tries to reconstruct the thoughts of, say, George Washington, that Washington is necessarily fictional, because we cannot know the real thoughts of the real Washington.) Martha Nussbaum, for one, has argued that this experience of putting oneself in the place of another (or another in the place of oneself, maybe) transfers to real life: for Nussbaum reading fiction, at least certain realistic kinds of fiction like Dickens's, makes us more empathic, i.e. better.

Personally I would not go that far. In my experience, it is possible to voraciously read the most refined literary fiction while remaining an asshole. And I don't think reading Hard Times would have done anything for all those who jittered with anticipation to invade Iraq; it would have fallen on blind eyes, as it were. Something else is involved in making that leap, in having both the ability and the desire to make that leap. But this thought did occur to me: if nothing else, the existence of fiction and other forms of art remind us of the importance of the leap--that is, of imagination. Where imagination is valued--widely praised, engaged in, and made available in the richest possible variety of forms--the leap is valued. Trying to picture what it is like to be someone else, even someone not obviously similar to oneself, will come easier. Will seem like a more obvious thing to do. Will not seem silly or beside the point in deciding what to do and how to live.

So bring on the art--art we hate, art we love, art we aren't sure about. The more the better.