- Timothy Egan’s response to Steve Jobs, who said, “the fact is that people don’t read anymore.”
- The shortlist for the Diagram Prize for the Oddest Book Title of the year.
- Will Ashford’s book art.
- Lee Kottner’s two part post on copyright.
- William Skidelsky on book reviewing in this month’s Prospect.
February 22, 2008
February 19, 2008
“I’m hip about time.” – Captain America (Peter Fonda) in Easy Rider
We are anything but timely here at Cup O’ Books. We do try though.
I mean, come on dude. I gots a blog, right!?
Speaking of time, racial politics is always a sticky subject, and I am uniquely unqualified to address it. But hey, that never stopped me before. Yesterday, while using my powers for evil and surfing some You Tube, I was introduced to Bomani Armah, a self described “poet with a hip-hop style, not a rapper.” The introduction was made via the following vid which caused a bit of a stir last fall.
You thought I forgot about the whole time thing, eh?
A quick warning that many people have found this song and video funny and satirical, which means others find it offensive and racist. Our position at Cup O’ Books is that speech is free and you are free to take your own position on speech. Hope that is sufficiently clear enough to confuse in a Thomas-More-keep-my-head kind of way.
The following is a video of Armah and others on CNN discussing the video and song.
I think I really became a fan when Armah responded to the idea that children cannot understand satire with his adolescent love of Mad Magazine. Awesome comeback!
February 17, 2008
“The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values, but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact, non-Westerners never do.” - Samuel P. Huntington
Can one support the troops without supporting the war? This is a knife edge deftly tread by Elizabeth D. Samet in her book Soldier’s Heart. Indeed, Samet balances upon this sharp point daily as a professor of literature at the United States Military Academy. No matter how morally or logically careful one is, however, conflicting imperatives will eventually cut those who seek to meld them. This is not to say that Samet is not successful, just that the tying together of polarizing principles in the context of war is often done with scar tissue.
Although this book is not about the Bush administration’s pursuit and handling of military action in Iraq, it would have been impossible to write with credibility about the students who will fight there without being up front with readers, but a distraction to dwell on a political position. Samet does exactly enough when she writes,
“… I remain unconvinced by any of the stated reasons given for the invasion of Iraq and dismayed by its civilian architects’ apparently cavalier lack of foresight, and because many of my former students, in whom I very much believe, participated in the invasion and continue to serve in the occupying force…”
I mention this at the outset because Iraq is a subject that elicits strong emotional, logical, and moral responses (usually all at the same time) and even when a writer is reasonably discussing a tangential subject (as Samet is), it can still be difficult for the reader to maintain an objective and rational approach to the discussion. There were times when I was irrationally annoyed by Samet’s reasonable approach to the preparation of young army officers at a time when they are likely to see combat upon graduation.
“There is nothing reasonable about war or training children to participate in it”, I yelled.
In spite of my inability to remain objective, Samet does not fall into that trap. By staying out of the Iraq mess, and focusing on her students and the institution they inhabit, she has written a book with broad reach. Even though part of me feels that Samet is cheating by avoiding the morality of the war and her possible culpability in preparing these young men and women for it, it is not a big part. This is not to say that Samet does not worry and care about what happens to these students. Her concern comes through loud and clear. My problem is that whenever she seems about to discuss the war in moral terms, she backs off and retreats into the literature she teaches. This is, of course, what the book is actually about, so I’m not really faulting her. But the immorality of what the United States has done to Iraq is eclipsed only by the crime committed against the military personnel who were sent into that situation in the first place. It is the elephant in the room, even when you want to talk about something else.
Soldier’s Heart does many things at once, and all of them with nearly equal competence. It discusses the costs and dividends of the choices one makes in life as well as the impact of events over which one has no control. It lays out the path by which one becomes a teacher and then defines that role. It synthesizes knowledge from all ages with a narrative voice that is tied to a particular generation and social status. It recognizes the existence of hypocrisy, contradiction and paradox in all points of view and does not run away from them. And finally it engages on emotional and intellectual levels. I had a hard time putting it down, even when I was picking up one of the many books Samet references. Of course this is the great fun of the book. Even the most well read person will find themselves chasing down authors and their works. It took me a long time to finish this book (and this post) because every few pages I would have to stop and read Ambrose Bierce or Wilfred Owen. Also, since I teach many of the same authors and works she does (i.e. Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried), I kept diving into unit plans adding material that Samet lays out, or that came to me as I read.
Samet begins the book with a description of a parent’s weekend in October 2001 and identifies the events of the previous month as being the cause of a quick and vast refocusing of energies and purpose at West Point. A varied cast of cadets cycle through the English professor’s classroom on their way to Iraq or Afghanistan. She and her colleagues feel the weight, but benefit pedagogically from the clarity of this predetermined path. Teaching English becomes as practical as engineering or chemistry to the army, and to the individual cadet and officer even more so. When one knows that she is going to a war zone, prep time becomes very valuable. The author makes the unassailable argument that studying English is not a waste of time; rather it is necessary and vital to the soldier’s ability to mentally survive war. As an English teacher, this is an excellent method for getting my head into your book.
There are equally valid and far less dangerous ways to approach this book. As a teacher of English at the high school level, Samet’s book will go next my copies of John McPhee’s The Headmaster, Dewey’s Democracy and Education, and others on my shelf of books that are right-thinking about dealing with students. Samet is obviously a dedicated and effective teacher, and I find the book’s greatest strength to be its ability to make visible the coalescence of multiple elements over time into an effective teacher. She approaches her students with a balance of necessary bureaucracy and personal connection. Discussions of dealing with a particularly difficult class go hand in hand with her continued correspondence with former students. Samet is obviously an experienced and serious educator in the prime of her career whose descriptions of classroom triumphs and difficulties will ring true with anyone who teaches.
In 1976, Samet, then seven years old, spent part of the summer walking Boston’s Freedom Trail as part of her experience with the nation’s bicentennial. That same summer, I was also seven years old and my mother and father put my sister and me in a Boston Whaler and took us down the Hudson to New York Harbor to see the tall ships. Since she graduated from Harvard the same year I graduated from (well, technically I was two credits short and had to finish the following summer) my less prestigious state university, I must deduce that she and I are the same age. After she referenced Monty Python’s Four Yorkshire Men, my GEN-X (I’m not a fan of the term, but it does what I need it to here) radar was on pretty strong. While Soldier’s Heart is in no way written in the voice of a Valley Girl, I didn’t have to go digging to understand many of the references, attitudes and sensibilities that some older and younger readers might. I only point this out because it struck me as interesting and may have colored my impression of the book with an unfortunate sentimentality.
Samet comes to the reader from an elite perspective, and although she is aware of this fact and speaks to it, at times it was distracting for me. Private Boston prep schools, Harvard, and Yale (via years of focus and hard work) are where the author learned her trade. Her students are not on their way to being buck privates. While West Point freshman may be at the bottom of the West Point barrel, it is a more appealing barrel than the enlisted one. This book is a view from the top in many ways. The focus on literature and film can seem a bit bourgeois at times, even when it focuses on knowledgeable and articulate authors like O’Brien and Bierce. My thoughts often drifted to the bulk of unfortunate military personnel who were not fortunate enough to sit in on Professor Samet’s war lit seminar. The percentage of our soldiers coming out of West Point is a relatively small one. It seems that for every class of 900 to 1,000 at West Point, about 4,000 ROTC officers graduate from other colleges around the country. With over a million personnel on the payroll, Samet’s effectiveness in preparing a handful of officers becomes a bit of an indictment of the training and use of the majority.
There is no way for Samet, at times, to avoid legitimizing, even glorifying, war. This includes the war that she decries in the quote above. Her love for the literature of war alone would be enough for me to make this statement, but her active participation as a teacher in a military institution is a validation of not only the soldiers, but also of the policies they are used to enforce around the world. Please note that this is not a criticism of Samet. Every American who pays taxes, consumes Halliburton/KBR products, or voted for any of our current government officials is equally culpable, and needs to identify and evaluate their own involvement in the American and Iraqi lives damaged and destroyed by this war.
On the contrary, I applaud Samet. Most Americans take or avoid a position on the war having never been impacted by it. Most of us buy into the myths that are necessary to conduct a war. Samet understands that each of us is a snail on Kurtz’s razor. Soldier’s Heart is a great book. If you took anything I said above as criticism of Samet, or her book, blame my poor writing skills and your own attention.
“If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie.” – Tim O’Brien