About a month ago there was a kerfuffle about how Jeff Bezos put The Remains of the Day on his favorite books list. This is actually old news but got some attention because, I think, of a reference to this fact in Jennifer Szalai’s review of Alec MacGillis’s Fulfillment. Anyway.
I thought this was pretty funny at the time for a few reasons—but mostly because Ishiguro is an incredibly popular novelist, and Remains of the Day is not only one of, if not the, most popular of his books (in addition to being a popular movie). Of course lots of people are going to read and enjoy him. It’s not hypocrisy or stupidity to enjoy art and be a bad person (or a person who is responsible for on the whole bad things in the world). It’s treating art as something that exists in a different sphere from business, which is what most people do, albeit in ways that are less extreme.
I was reminded of this (again) when my friend Bradley Babendir pointed out this list of books Goodreads marked as “readers also enjoyed” for a new collection of essays by Lauren Hough called Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing. The first book (Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind) isn’t that surprising, marketing-wise, but then you get to the second and—
—for people using screen readers, that’s Jordan Peterson.
I am not a fan of 12 Rules for Life (and wrote about it a little here)—which is basically seared into my mind as the book where Peterson holds a struggling child down while calling said child a “monster”—but of course, upon reflection, this would be the case. Any book as successful as that book is going to have substantial overlap with the readership of other successful books. This will be true even if the authors of these books openly despise each other.
But in an online “community of readers,” like Twitter, it’s unlikely you’ll run into somebody who enjoys both 12 Rules for Life and a book of liberal-leaning memoir essays. Again, this isn’t hypocrisy or people being afraid to “admit” they like Jordan Peterson or whatever—more that Twitter tends to present subcultures where people take a lot of pains to completely distinguish themselves from each other.
The bigger point here is just that people want things to be signifiers—“no one who likes X could be a bad person” (or, “someone who likes X could never like/do Y”)—but usually these things only really signify the literal fact that somebody likes these things and not much else. To me this often manifests in ways that are worse than political associations, i.e., the assumption that somebody not working a “smart” job could not have interests that are “smart,” that kind of thing. Cruelty is another story, obviously; somebody being kind to their dog might not tell you anything about how they treat people, but somebody kicking their dog absolutely does.
I always thought the best novel about this whole problem—you want a proxy by which to judge people, but the proxy is possibly meaningless—was Austen’s Northanger Abbey, where you have Catherine Morland’s propensity for using Gothic novels as a guide (which does not lead her totally wrong, but definitely leads her in some weird directions), but then also Austen’s way of letting you know who to trust and not to trust, which often does come down, in that novel, to their taste.
So on the one hand Catherine’s map of the world is unreliable (if not wholly so), but on the other hand we know which love interest we like because he likes novels, too. What can you do?
What a concerto
of good stinks said the dog
trotting along Riverside Drive
in the early spring afternoon
sniffing this way and that
how gratifying the cellos of the river
the tubas of the traffic
Some metaphorical housekeeping… I wanted to mention some of the longer stuff I’m working on for paid subscribers here. I’m working on something about failure in the films of Elaine May (put a little on hold to do some research, ie reading stuff about Mike Nichols and mining it for information). I’m also working on something about Katherine Angel’s Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again and some older “raunch comedies” like The Telephone Book and (probably) Barbarella. Those are the two best defined projects right now, though there a couple others.
Since these pieces have an amount of upfront cost associated with writing them, they’re going to be for paid subscribers only. So if that sounds like something you’d like, please subscribe!
Also, I’m doing a podcast! The first episode is up on the Patreon page.