“Algorithmic Rosebud” Edition
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S2: I’m Stephen Metcalf and this is the Slate Culture Gabfest Algorithmic Rosebud Edition. It’s Wednesday, December 9th, 2020. On today’s show, Mank tells the story of Herman J. Mankowitz and his authorship of the screenplay for Citizen Kane. It stars Gary Oldman in the title role. It was directed by David Fincher. We’ll be joined by Slate’s own Matthew Decem to discuss. And then Spotify has held its annual mirror up to who we really are. Its so-called wrapped feature shows us what music we’ve listened to most over the previous year. Julia Turner will join us to discuss. And finally with Laura Miller is our co-host. This week, we decided we had to ask her, what are your best books, favorite books of the year? She’s made her list and we will discuss.
S3: Joining me today is Laura Miller, the book critic for Slate and general cultural maven and critic for Slate. Hey, Laura. Hi. And of course, Dana Stevens is Slate’s film critic. Dana, hello. Hello.
S4: All right, well, the movie Mac is now out on Netflix, it tells the story of how Herman J. Mankiewicz came to write what many people regard as the greatest screenplay of all time for the movie Citizen Kane. Mac started his career as a New York journalist and member of the famously clever Algonquin Circle in New York City. When the movie opens, he’s a Hollywood screenwriter, an alcoholic who has largely passed away his immense talents, writing bad movies and playing court jester to the powers that be. He’s now being tasked by a wunderkind named Orson Welles to write a movie about a press demagogue based on the unscrupulous, fervently right wing William Randolph Hearst, who was, I think it’s fair to say, the Rupert Murdoch of his time. Here’s the twist, though. Mankiewicz once knew Hearst and knew him actually quite well, he was part of his rarefied inner social circle, but not quite a full decade before the opening of the movie in the 1930s, mostly because for Hearst, he played the part of the cherished fool, the court jester. Really. The movie switches back and forth between Mac, now a blowsy, washed up screenwriter, The Contender getting his last shot by writing this movie for Welles and to his earlier relationship with Hearst and the charmed Hearst Circle, which included Marion Davies, an ex showgirl, actress and Hearst’s mistress, with whom Mank struck up a quite beautiful friendship. The film stars Gary Oldman as Mankowitz and Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies. Let’s listen to a clip.
S5: So just to set the scene up a little bit, the voices you’ll hear will be Gary Oldman as Herman Mankiewicz and Sam Troughton as the actor and producer John Houseman, who is coming to visit him in the remote cabin in the desert where he’s been essentially exiled while he finishes the screenplay.
S6: You’re asking a lot of a motion picture audience. All in all, it’s a bit of a jumble that you say jumbo jumbo hodgepodge of talky episodes, a collection of fragments that leap around in time like Mexican jumping. Welcome to my mind. OK, so the story is so scattered, I’m afraid one will need a roadmap. You mean it’s in? Would you consider simplifying? As Pascal once said, if only I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter. All I am saying is no one can write like that, but I can write like that. Harshman, I have the narrative is one big circle, like a cinnamon roll, not a straight line pointing to the nearest exit. You cannot capture a man’s entire life in two hours. How you can hope to leave the impression of what nobody expects. Shakespeare. People aren’t spending their hard earned 25 cents to see Macbeth, Maestro. The dog faced boy did my bad voodoo Macbeth. Don’t be fooled. He’s a showman, Busca, reveling in sleight of hand. Save yourself the trouble he done in 60 that he’ll get this and the audience will to stop worrying and have a pickle. I think you’re not hungry. Haven’t been since we got here. Cheerio. Right. Hodd aim low.
S4: All right. So for our discussion of Manc, we’re joined by Matthew Decem, who is a browbeat editor and contributor to Slate. Matt, welcome back to the show. Thanks for having me so mad. I mean, one of the most striking things about the movie we can begin with is that that part of the making of Citizen Kane that does not involve Orson Welles turns out to be quite a remarkable story.
S3: You’ve dug in to what of this movie is factual and not factual, including its huge subplot. You might even say it’s a plot which involves the destruction, Hurst’s destruction of Upton Sinclair, who is running for the governorship of California as essentially a socialist. Talk a little bit about what’s true and what’s less than factual in in this film.
S7: Yeah, sure. It’s interesting. And it’s something you can actually hear in that clip a little bit is that the film is sort of been it uses a lot of true facts. But Theravance, it didn’t actually intersect with Herman J. Mankiewicz’s life and that significant away the writing of the screenplay is one thing, but the earlier flashbacks to make, which his career in Hollywood are structured around the 1934 California gubernatorial race, which is, as you say, this the Sinclair campaign, which is more or less accurately depicted on screen. But Mankiewicz had nothing to do with it’s the movie, of course, it’s kind of structured after Citizen Kane and Citizen Kane. You know, Kane is missing Rose, but he has this unkillable wound. Mankowitz, the real Herman Mankiewicz had a terrible relationship to his father, but there was no event in his life that would have obviously been the reason he turned against Hearst. So to give him a reason to write this caricature of Hearst and his mistress in the film, they set up the situation where the real things Hearst did during that campaign. Are rearranged so that they break Kermadec, which is hard to rearrange in ways that justify the what Mackiewicz does during the writing of the script.
S3: OK, let’s let’s pivot to you for a second. This movie and what do you make of it as a film?
S8: Yeah, I love the reminder that it’s a movie.
S5: I mean, I think I’m laughing at that in part also because the social media response to this movie, at least in my film Twitter world, has been so intense that I kind of need to be reminded that it is just a piece of entertainment that’s on Netflix. People are all up in arms about all kinds of things in this movie, from historical inaccuracies to, you know, the contention that Mankowitz wrote the script and was more responsible for it than Wells. And we can talk about the history of all those debates. But when I reviewed this movie over a month ago, because it only opened on Netflix this week, but has been, I guess, in theaters for just about a month now, you know, I essentially sort of treated it as like a beat for film nerds, that it’s you know, it’s fun entertainment. If you know a little bit of Hollywood history, if you know Citizen Kane pretty well, it’s almost fanfic, right? It kind of fills in some imaginary holes around this this moment in film history that we all know from only one angle, which is seeing the finished Citizen Kane. But in fact, because social media will do this to to every single product, it has not been a source of fun for film nerds, but instead has been an occasion for them all to fight with each other about things extraneous to the movie.
S8: So that’s how they have fun. It’s true. This their version of fun.
S5: I mean, I guess part of me wants to stand up for this movie without saying that it’s one of the greatest movies of the year. I found it somewhat disappointing in that I was really excited for it. And, you know, the idea of David Fincher, you know, a director who in the past I’ve not always but often, you know, really loved and found really exciting taking on this material and doing it, you know, in the way that he did. So we haven’t talked about the look or sound of the movie. But, you know, it’s a it’s a real throwback. It’s shot in black and white. It’s meant to look as if it were shot by Gregg Toland, the cinematographer for Citizen Kane. So it’s got all those familiar deep shadows and dusty moats floating in the sunlight and looks incredible. Sounds incredible from a technical angle is beautiful. All kinds of great performances, most notably for me, Amanda Siegfried’s as as Mary Davis, somebody that we think of. Amanda Seefried, I think is always playing ingenues or maybe at the most she’ll play a sort of, you know, a wicked mean girl and mean girls, but doesn’t really get to play adult women with conflicting motives. And that’s exactly how she plays Mary Davis. And it’s a great performance, I think, Brooklyn accent at all. So, yeah, I am pro manc, but at the same time, I think that it has a limited niche audience. And I have heard stories of film nerds sitting down with their non film nerd partners to watch it. And the non film nerd drops out about an hour in because it is a two hour and 12 minute long movie that’s extremely diffuse in its storytelling. And I wonder what you you all thought of that, the fact that this movie takes a long time spiraling like a cinnamon roll, as he says in that clip around what its actual story is, sometimes it’s this Upton Sinclair campaign. Sometimes it’s the making of Citizen Kane. Sometimes it’s the alcoholism of Herman Mankiewicz. It’s just all over the place.
S9: And I guess close to the center of it is just this guy, this writer, trying to hit a kind of unrealistic deadline, which is a little stressful if you happen to be a writer yourself.
S5: Yeah, that’s actually the headline to my review, is something about, you know, it’s a movie about whether or not a drunk can meet his deadline, you know, which has limited suspense if you are not someone who is always trying to meet your own.
S10: I did not know until after I saw the movie that Mackiewicz was not a supporter of the sort of leftist movements that swept through America in the thirties. But I guess maybe in some sense. Could sort of perceive it from the way the character was conceived. I mean, he’s this guy who, you know, is seems to have a basically kind heart, but who has this major gambling addiction and major alcoholism and his wife, at some point, everyone calls poor Sarah because of just the trials that he puts her through and. He just didn’t seem like a guy who would suddenly be swept up in the dream of socialism, especially because he’s so cynical. So I feel like the character, although Gary Oldman is a great actor and perhaps a little long in the tooth for this particular role. But nevertheless, he’s he’s really great. I just feel like he didn’t really have that much to work with because of this kind of dumb motivation that he was set up with. But I mean, other than that, it was gorgeous. And I loved the the recreation of the, you know, the older acting style and and how it looked and.
S11: Many of the performances, yeah, yeah, I mean, agreed, and we should just for those who haven’t seen it, we should specify this is a movie about what appears to be an entirely fictionalized relationship between Mankowitz and his left wing politics and how Hearst and libertarian Irving Thalberg stomp on his 1930s aspirations for labor in the New Deal by destroying Upton Sinclair. So so on a purely factual basis, like the movie totally travesties the actual Herman Mankiewicz. And then secondly, there’s the authorship question of Citizen Kane, which is triply vexed, because not only is it a factual question of who actually did what in the writing of the movie between Orson Welles and Mankiewicz, both of whom claimed they did it substantially without the other day, very jealously, wanted that writer credit to themselves, even though officially they share credit on the movie. So there’s to begin with just who wrote what? What drafts do we have that are still extant? How can we examine them and determine, you know, who did what? It turns out if you do all of the forensic analysis of the existing scripts as we have them, it seems pretty clear that Mankiewicz wrote a huge, somewhat traditionally structured, you know, pretty inclusive, fictionalized biography of Hearst in the you know, in the person of Charles Phos, fictional personage of Charles Foster Kane. And then Welles both rewrote that and then massively rewrote on the fly as he made the movie. And therefore substantially, Welles has a claim to what makes Citizen Kane distinctive as a screenwriter has substantial claim to what makes Citizen Kane a work of distinctive cinematic genius. On top of that, the extra vexing question abstractly who authors the movie as between the director, the screenwriter, the performers, the designers or whatever? And. A lot of the origin of this particular movie comes out of a long book length essay written by Pauline Kael, initially published in The New Yorker, in which she made the argument that the Mankowitz effectively wrote the movie as the screenwriter and was screwed out of Wells due to his, you know, creative will to power and his domineering personality. Mankiewicz was basically screwed out of credit for it. But Pauline Kael herself was prosecuting her own weird hobbyhorse about the auteur theory, which she felt placed way too much emphasis on the director as the writer of the movie, because she had a deep affection as a creature of journalism herself, not only for screenwriters, but for this cohort that Mankiewicz was a prime example of, of New York journalists who, when talking pictures suddenly, virtually overnight came into existence, were hired at huge premium to come to Hollywood and write Audible Dialogue for the movies they needed. People who could write on the could crash huge amounts of copy on a deadline. And so they turned to these very clever Algonquin related New York journalists. And so Kael wrote this beautiful in its way, beautiful, but also beautifully dishonest essay about what that, you know, cross continental migration had meant to this cohort of writers and what it had meant for the movies and that they’re kind of getting stomped on by movie historians because of this perverse in her mind, preoccupation with the with the director. So, Matt, to have focused really an entire picture on two factual claims and then get them both wrong strikes me as a little weird.
S7: Yeah, I think it’s one of those things where the story of Upton Sinclair in the epic campaign in the way that California’s capital mobilized to crush him is it’s a great story, but it’s not Herman Mankiewicz’s story, you know, so it’s one of those things where it’s like it’s fascinating stuff, but it’s making an argument that doesn’t really add up to anything now. I mean, the argument is, does the movie have to have any relation to the real world? And I would say probably not. But in this case, a lot of people, this is the one thing they’re going to learn about the writing of Citizen Kane and the 1934 campaign and. Well, actually, I suppose that you do most of what you need to know about the 1934 campaign. So on those grounds, I approve.
S10: There’s an interesting other fold to this which comes out in an interview that Mark Harris did for Vulture with David Fincher, the director, in that the original version of the screenplay for this was written by his father, who and then rewritten multiple times. And they you know, I think at one point he says there are people who are who have roles in this film who were not born when the original version of the script was was written. His father was a a magazine journalist, basically a writer. And Fincher is a director who mostly doesn’t write his movies. And so, you know, he eventually adapted his father’s screenplay into this film. But there’s a great moment where he says, you know, the idea that your film would be kind of done are mostly done in the screenplay is just so he can understand why his father felt that way. Because when you’re a writer, you have complete control over the end product, except, of course, for your editor or, you know, when stuff is cut for length. But but, you know, in making a film, there’s just so much that you can’t anticipate so much, you know, that’s unexpected and and and last minute and improvised even in something even in a work as controlled as Citizen Kane, that that it just doesn’t even make any sense to talk about it in that in that way. And and obviously there were going to be things that Welles did in directing this film that Mank could never have anticipated because they would only come up in the actual making, right?
S5: Yes. Laura, when you go into the to the movie, knowing that Jack Fincher, who died in 2003, I believe so 17 years before the movie came out that the screenwriter died, I think it becomes all the more moving and meaningful that David Fincher credits the screenplay entirely to him. I mean, it’s obvious from that Mark Harris interview and other places that a lot of work has been done by other hands on the screenplay since then to update it and to to take out some of his father’s hobbyhorses. I think that his father’s screenplay was more a.. Orson Welles than the movie turned out to be. But he gets the entire credit, which which is not nothing in a movie. That’s all about who is going to be credited for a screenplay.
S3: Hmm. All right. Well, the movie is Manc. It’s on Netflix, directed by David Fincher, written by his father, credited to his father, Jack Fincher. Check it out. Apparently a film. Twitter is aflame with controversy about this film, we’d love to hear from you what you thought of it and what you think of it in relation to the real events that it supposedly depicts.
S5: And, Steve, if I could just jump in and say, if people want to go even deeper into the the spiraling cinnamon bun of the universe, Mutassim and I are going to be spoiling it this week in a spoiler special, which we’re taping tomorrow. So you can look for that on Friday. If you want to watch, make first and then watch us take it apart.
S3: Glorious. Matt, thank you so much for coming back on the show. That was that was a pleasure. Thanks so much for having me.
S1: OK, before we go any further, this is typically where we talk business. Dana, what do you got?
S12: Steve, our first item of business is just to remind our listeners that we are going to have a remote live show. It’s coming up on Wednesday, December 16th, at 8:00 p.m. Eastern Time. And as we always do at the end of the year, it will be a listener call in show. So that means we can take some questions live on YouTube and Facebook, where the show will be streaming. But we also want to collect some questions ahead of time so we have something to start off with. So please, if there’s anything that you want to ask, the three of us and Julia, thankfully, will be on for the show because we wouldn’t want to do an interview or call in without Julia. You can call us at nine seven three eight two six three one eight. Once again, that number is nine seven three eight two six zero three one eight. To leave us a voicemail question and we may play your question live during the show and answer it once again. This will all happen on the evening of Wednesday, December 16th at 8:00 p.m. Eastern time. If you want some more information, you can go to Slate Dotcom live. One more piece of business this week is to tell everyone, since the holiday season is here, that the Slate shop is having a special holiday sale right now, you can get 30 percent off all kinds of Slate merchandise at DOT, Slate, dotcom. You can get a nice pair of slate socks. I happen to own three pairs of socks because they’re very comfy and I’m proud of my magazine and a cozy Slate logo sweatshirt. There’s other fun stuff to check out there at Shop Dot, Slate, dotcom, and your 30 percent discount will be automatically added at checkout. Finally, our last announcement is about today. Slate plus segment. We have Laura Miller, Slate’s book critic, this week as our co-host.
S5: So we’re going to use Laura’s presence as an excuse to talk about a debate that’s happening right now in the literary world about whether kids and young people should be reading more contemporary literature as opposed to the classics. Yes, it’s the canon. Again, it’s something that we’ve often debated on the Slate Culture Gabfest. But this in particular is a twist on the canon argument having to do with Y.A. with assignments to younger kids in school, etc.. And according to Laura, this debate has gotten quite heated on Twitter. She follows why Twitter and all of its drama and she is going to catch us up on that.
S12: If there’s anything that you as a listener would like to hear us discuss in a future Slate plus segment, please let us know at Culture Fest, at Slate Dotcom. It’s part of the show that we like to keep light and fun and sort of different from the rest of the show. You know, just a personal question or anything that you would like to hear us answer. So please give us some ideas. And if you are not a slate plus member, as always, you can sign up at Slate Dotcom Culture Plus where you will get ad free podcasts, exclusive, plus only content and many other benefits. Again, that slate dotcom culture plus. And for those of you who already subscribe, thank you so much.
S3: All right, well, one consequence of cycling our entire existence through digital platforms is that the major tech companies form what has to be a more or less complete psychographic profile of who we are. We accommodate ourselves to this semi voluntary Orwellian nightmare by reassuring ourselves that this information only adds value to third parties when it’s all aggregated. Therefore, we may be being seen being catalogued by the algorithm, but we’re also being made anonymous by having it all aggregated into the mass. Well, curiously, Spotify has reversed the flow a little bit here. It has shown us who we are as the sum of our listening habits for the previous year. This feature called Rap, to which I knew nothing about but apparently has now become an annual ritual, shows us what our top songs, genres, album podcasts of listening have been for the previous year, also where we lie in the top percentage of a given artist’s listenership in terms of sheer usage. Anyway, let me turn to Julia Turner. I Julia, it’s just the perfect segment to have you join us for. Thanks for coming back on.
S13: Hi, guys. I’m so glad to be back. And thank you so much for holding down the fort while I have to be away for a few weeks. Yeah, well, I think this is prompted because when I got my rapped, which I will confess to having just just in in admitting in what total thrall I am to the tech companies, I was seeing people share their raps on social and I like probably went to Spotify 18 times to see where mine was and it wasn’t coming up. And then I Googled Spotify, rapped, not working and figured out that I needed to update the app. And anyway, I went to some effort to get my surveillance state news about my own cultural taste, which you think I would know myself. But then what what rapped revealed to me is that I have no musical taste independent of this show because my top five individual songs were all songs that we talked about or that I discovered anyway, in the course of our summer STREAT listening, my number one was one that I think I named Roseby even back the remix. That was the tick tock sensation. But my album cuts were prompted by endorsements from you, so no one was the Andrew Rangel Bach Partita is the Daina recommended.
S8: Yes, a little while ago as thinking music pumping for Bach over here. So my number one artist of the year, and I believe I am now, thanks to you, Dana, in the top point 01 percentile of Andrew Rangel listeners. So I’m like a superstar fan.
S13: And then number two is Taylor Swift’s folklore album wise. And number three was Red Galan’s Red Alone, which is a piano album, jazz piano album that Steve recommended probably three or four years ago. But that’s become a total staple of mine. So anyway, I texted you guys a few choice screenshots and here we are.
S1: Let’s continue with the first pass around the table and then we can maybe draw the camera out and think about what this whole thing means. But, Laura, what about you?
S9: OK, well, my Spotify listening habits are I can’t tell if they’re revealing or not. I mean, I basically listen to early music or ancient music like classical music in the daytime and jazz at night.
S10: So I am completely know nothing about pop music. I never listen to it. And so as a rule, I would have probably something like like the Bach Partitas on my heavy rotation.
S9: But this year I really had trouble distressing from reading the news in the morning, I’d have to sit down and read a book and it was really hard for me to concentrate and I needed something that was extremely restful. And so I started to listen to this harpist named Helen Davies. And I just what I do is I find like a song that I like or a track that I like, and I just create a radio station off of that. And then I listen to it. And when I hear something I like, I save it to a playlist. So as a result, this Helen Davies arrangement of some old Irish song is was my number one number one track, even though I could never have told you that, because I was always just sort of putting it on and saying, look, you live in a beautiful bucolic setting. You need to calm down. You need to concentrate on this book. You need not to be freaking out. That was that was what Helen Davies was for me this year. And then the other was Bill Evans trio Autumn Leaves because I created a radio station around that.
S2: Dana, what about you?
S5: Well, when Julia sent us that that a screenshot of her her top songs or top albums, I guess that included our recommendations. I, of course, also immediately wanted to go on a on a dive to see what I listen to. And I I guess my listening habits are boring in their own way because I really only listen to one pop album this year and every one of my top five tracks is from that album. And maybe we should listen to my very number one track for a second for both, cause I’m telling you to. So, yeah, ever since we talked about the Fiona Apple album, Fetch the Bolt Cutters back way back at the beginning of the pandemic early spring, that’s been essentially the only pop album that I’ve listened to with maybe a little bit of the Taylor Swift album mixed in when when that came out. Other than that, I think that my habits maybe resemble Laura’s to some extent. And to give you an idea, I mean, after those top five Fiona songs, which are a very accurate representation not only of my listening habits this year, but of my pandemic big mood the entire time, that sense of kind of fury is claustrophobia. And, you know, the desire for freedom that that album is all about is just was so perfect for 2020. But the next thing after that was, I think, a Lady Gaga song, because I share my Spotify with my kid. I love Lady Gaga, too. But, you know, all of the sort of diva pop was her stuff. And then immediately after that came the Laura Miller esque Indian ragas, which is exactly what I use for that mood regulation you’re talking about. I feel like if I have non Western classical music on with no lyrics or lyrics in a language I don’t know, I can have that on while I read, write, you know, otherwise try to gather my brain. And it has that similar sort of sort of effect on me, like everything’s OK, keep going. You know, the sitar is still droning in the background. So, yeah, I mean, essentially it was Fiona, Fiona, Fiona, Fiona, Fiona, Lady Gaga and then Nickled Banerjee, who’s my favourite sitar player. And we got into the the Indian droning portion of the year.
S3: Had. I share a Spotify account with my my entire family, which includes two teenage daughters, so let me give you my top five or six here and it will give you a taste of it. No one is a king princess song number two is a king princess song. Number five is a king princess song. Number nine is a king princess song. Number three is Calero. Number four, Phoebe Bridgers. And then squeaking in at number six is the locksmith’s, which is courtesy of of Dad Rock Dad here. So it’s. And it’s just what this. Informed me of is how incredibly tight the cycles of taste are in popular music when you’re young, because it wasn’t a couple of weeks ago before I saw this list, I was saying to the kids, hey, remember when we used to listen to King Princess because she’s been so completely supplanted by Phoebe Bridgers, who’s this, you know, like towering figure of feminist heroism in my household now, songwriting and otherwise. And it just so completely obliterated King Princess from our automobile deejaying that it seemed like something that had happened two or three years ago. Like, you know, more like when we were listening to Adele, you know, which probably was more like eight or 10 years ago. But what I realized from the songs that appear on my list that are courtesy of me is that I’m when I use Spotify, I’m a playlist listener. So I put on a playlist that’s often hours and hours and hours worth of music that I’ve kind of whatever added to over the years and and put it on shuffle. And so there’s just like one song or two songs or a few songs that maybe I just feel obliged. Aside from that, that I feel obliged to play in here. And they appear on the list, even though I wasn’t especially aware that they had a special place in my heart. But I do think that that song by the locksmith’s, which I hope we can play a little bit of, called the single revival people do people remember the singles. You know, it was a cassette single, which is just I remember because singles gave just the tiniest little micro moment in the history of music, which is the point of the song, the poignant and sort of clever point of the whole song. But anyway, let’s let’s listen to.
S2: And let’s listen to the song that was number one on our list, 1952 by King Princess, just an amazing song.
S14: So, you know, fairly. OK, I’m waiting for your. Cableway.
S3: Julia, let me let me turn it back to you. This is this is obviously part of a business model designed to produce as many network effects as possible. So by telling someone you’re in the top point of one percent of feebs Bridgers listeners, you’re giving them something to brag about on social media, driving more people to Spotify to check their own rewrapped. Ironically, many people discover they are in a rather large, suspiciously large cohort of top one percent listeners of Phoebe Bridgers or Taylor Swift. So who knows what’s going on in the secret sauce there? But what do you make of this just as a as a tech business phenomenon?
S13: Well, I mean, obviously our data is being repackaged to us so we can market their product so we shouldn’t feel great about it. But I have just always been a tracker and I’m curious if you guys are trackers, but I like keep a list of all the books I read and have for 10 years. And I keep a list of all the movies I watch and I have for 10 years. And obviously there’s people like our frequent guest, Jemele, who do that on Box, which is a very cool community where film fans track their film watching and write reviews anyway. What I like about this is it satisfies my data, obsession, self and and can reveal to you things you don’t know about your cultural consumption and, you know, not wild surprises. Like, it makes sense that my none of my number one tracks was from any of my top five. None of my top five tracks was from any of my top five albums, which makes sense because I, you know, listen to a pretty short list of my favorite songs on Blast when I drive or when I’m needing peppy work music. But when I need like writing or thinking work music, I listen to Andrew Rangel and my family during the pandemic started doing these kind of sustained silent reading times. Now that my kids are getting into reading and there are a couple of albums we would listen to there. So the Red Garland sometimes Paul Simon was on my top five. We listen to some of his albums and Krung Ben, who I we talked about, I think on Straten, whom I recommended. So I’m curious whether you guys are our culture trackers and this fits into any kind of culture tracking habit or if part of what’s interesting about it to you guys is that it’s alien from your culture consumption.
S5: Yeah, I would say the latter, Julia, I’m the opposite of a tracker, and I’m always sort of surprised to be reminded that there are all these surveillance instruments spying on me, you know, things like your your steps being counted every time you walk around with your phone. I don’t really check that. But then when I do, I’m sort of always surprised that somebody is calculating it. And this Spotify thing was interesting to me, mainly because of what you sent around, I think otherwise I might not have noticed it. Then, of course, it became this complete wave on social media. And to me that stuff is like letter box. Interesting to watch other people do. You know, I was not one of those who were objecting to or mocking all the people who posted their Spotify raps. In fact, I always thought that they were interesting glimpses into that person’s listening habits. And I guess to me it seems like there are more dangerous things that the quantification of our data is doing than giving us a chance to share our favorite songs of the year. That seems relatively innocuous as as uses of personal data go.
S9: I’m not I don’t really track either. I mean, I, I, I wish that I kept a list of all the books I’d read and especially of all the books that I started and didn’t finish, which is hugely outnumbers all the books that I’ve read all the way through because I started a lot of books trying to figure out whether I think it’s good enough to write about and then bail on it if I have a problem with it. But I often find that like not only do I forget whether I’ve read a particular book or not, but I sometimes forget books that I’ve reviewed. I mean, it’s been like thirty years that I’ve been doing this. So sometimes I’ll like search for a title, you know, previous title by the author and then I’ll come on. A review will come up that I wrote, you know, ages ago of the earlier book. And I’ll be like, wow, I don’t even remember doing that. So I do wish that I, I track that I and I do track my steps and my sleep pretty religiously with a Fitbit. So it’s it is kind of funny that I don’t track the thing that I do most of my my significant work on.
S1: Mhm. Yeah. I don’t, it won’t shock you to hear I don’t track myself really at all. But the other thing that this exercise brought home to me is I’m not a quantitative like I’m not I have the opposite reaction to music, which is that if I really, really cherish something or like, like love it, like it’s in the inner inner inner pantheon, in the inner chamber of my heart, I actually listen to it less. So there’s kind of a reverse indicator here. There are certain things that I don’t want to turn into the Mona Lisa, you know, I don’t want to turn them into Hey Jude. I don’t want them to be destroyed by overfamiliarity. And they just keep that that that that tenderness and that I don’t know that freshness basically by not being listened to very often. I mean, there are there are records that a kind of blue by Miles Davis is like you can it’s so close to being the Mona Lisa of jazz. It’s the I believe is the highest selling jazz album of all time. It’s it’s just an exquisite document. Right. There’s something perfect about it. I probably listen to that once every eight, ten years, you know. And so it’s just it’s weird how a certain song or a certain thing seems to have its power augmented by endless repetition for a highly concentrated period in your life and that you’re dosing yourself and some unconscious. But it must be strategic way by doing that. And so that is fascinating. That’s revealing. Like, what is it about this weird Australian indie pop band that I’ve been listening to now for twenty five years since I first heard them over the over the speaker system and Kim’s video in the East Village, you know, in 1996 or something. And it’s like somehow like I need to keep going back and back and back to that. But so it’s I find the exercise very revealing, even though I’m not much of a quantitative fetishist. All right, well, um, uh, this is a classic segment to have listeners respond to via email.
S3: Love to hear what you’re rapt consisted of and what it said about you and how you formulated your musical tastes and whether you use data to figure out who you are. All the above with. We’d love to hear from you. Julia, thanks so much for coming on and guesting. Of course, a total delight to have you back. Doesn’t even need to be said. But what does need to be said is that we’re doing it again next week for our live call in show.
S13: And I should say our Call-In shows are always one of our favorite shows of the year. I believe it was during a call in show that I was reduced to tears talking about a tiny mouse architect book. I feel like we’ve had some of our best, funniest, weirdest shows during the Colline, but we’ve never done a call in live. So that’ll be fun. But we’re counting on you guys to ask us great questions. You know, things you dying to hear us talk about cultural conundrums you’d like us to tackle. So please, please, please call and leave an enticing voicemail at nine seven three eight two six oh three one eight nine seven three eight two six zero three one eight. We cannot wait.
S1: All right, well, it’s that time of year again, it’s the end of year, we often talk about end of year lists. We do it with a little bit of a wry meta approach. But we do have Laura Miller on the show this week, and it just seemed too juicy to pass up Laura. I want to start someplace larger and more holistic and then let’s drill down, but what was different or can you pinpoint anything different or unique or or ostensibly trend like about the books that you ended up not only not only picking, but reading from this year what was two, 20, 20, 20 like as a year in books?
S9: Well, it was a crazy mixed up year because at the beginning. Of the pandemic, a lot of books were postponed on the theory that the publication dates of a lot of books were postponed until the fall on the theory that it was too hard, especially for newer writers, to publish into an environment where people couldn’t go out to bookstores, where they couldn’t travel on tour and do the local media. That often helps bump a book up to a higher level of visibility and sales. But the weird thing about that was also that for the first few months in the spring, in the early summer, book sales were way up and that was partly educational books because people were teaching their kids at home, but also people couldn’t go out. And so a lot of people decided they were going to read more. So it was it was a really good year for people who were established names, you know, whose books people were looking forward to and maybe not such a great year for debuts. I don’t know it will. We have yet to see the sort of year round sales round ups that will give us a sense of whether all debuts tanked and it was only established names, which is generally how it is when it comes to the bestseller list. For me, I am I tend to I have a taste for somewhat darkish things, books that some people consider to be too depressing or just maybe cynical. I actually like, but this year I really couldn’t go there and I was fascinated to see that practically every especially of the practically all of the fiction that I picked had an element of the upbeat. By the time you got to the end, you know, it had it went into an upper register and was not sort of unresolved and mournful the way I sometimes like like books to be.
S3: Let’s move into some specifics, so what did that mean when the rubber hit the road here?
S9: Well, really, probably my favorite novel this year was Deacon King Kong by James McBride, who is also the author of Good Lord Bird, which was made into a sensational mini series this year. And I recommend everyone check out. But. Well, good Lord, Bird. Well, it definitely has a dark side because one of the main characters is hung by the end of it. John Brown Chicken King Kong is really about this neighborhood in Red Hook where James McBride’s parents founded a church. And I think the novel that I am most inclined to compare it to is Jane Austen’s Emma, which may sound weird because it’s set, I think, in the early 60s. Not too much historical stuff in there. And it’s a sort of a mix of races and genders and classes in this neighborhood, maybe not so much. Classes are not a lot of really well-off wasps in it, but it’s basically a village novel like Emma. You know, it’s about how you live in a place with all of these characters. And sometimes they drive you crazy and sometimes you love them even as they’re driving you crazy.
S10: And there’s just a sense of the human community in it that even though it involves someone being shot, it’s still.
S9: Just so warming, you know, it’s just a it’s a it’s a lovely book, it’s not sentimental or sappy or full of like generic sort of Hallmark movie uplift, but it is filled with love of humanity, which is just.
S10: Was just so precious this year.
S5: Laura, I have another title to ask you about, because on a previous guest spot on this show, you recommended another book in the series to me and that Summer by Al Smith, which is the conclusion of a four book series. She’s written, I gather, one for each of the seasons. And I remember that shortly after fall came out, you are on the show and you said to me specifically, I think that you would like Fall by Al Smith. I still haven’t read it. I haven’t read very much fiction at all in the past couple of years because I’m so busy reading non-fiction to finish my own nonfiction book. But I wanted you to talk about Summer and about Al Smith’s series in general and just make it make another pitch for it.
S9: Make me read it. Yes. OK, well, so autumn is actually what the book is called and the idea, the novel that I recommended to you, and that’s the first book in the series. And now she has completed the series over the course of about four years.
S10: And her goal was to write novels that are set in the present so that you would be reading it almost at the same time that that that the almost in the same historical context, let’s say that the action of the novel is set in. So Summer, for example, came out over the course of the summer and it is about the pandemic.
S9: Autumn was about the aftermath of Brexit. And some of the intervening novels are about the refugees and migrants in England and relationships between the generations. It’s a it’s basically a series of novels about getting through the past four years and the incredible pressure it has put on all of us to be surrounded by so much inhumane behavior on the part of our fellow citizens and the sort of rage and and bitterness and hatred that has sort of risen up like this sea monster from the deep sea and also has been made more visible by forces like social media and how you still put together a sense, a meaningful sense of community and hope from from, you know, in those circumstances.
S3: Laura, if it’s OK, let’s switch over to nonfiction for a second. All right. So you included on your final list, the memoir from Barack Obama. Talk a little bit about Promised Land.
S10: Yeah. This memoir is. I mean, it’s very it’s very no, no drama Obama, you know, it is a very calm and measured account of his a little of his early life and his various or his. Three political campaigns and then what the work of the president is like and what’s kind of great about it is that. His goal is really just to tell you what it’s like to be president and he doesn’t really grandstand, it’s very detailed about how all of the different negotiations are made and how the decisions are made.
S9: It feels very forthright and it’s just fascinating. It’s like a it’s a story of doing a job in a way that but I just don’t associate with presidential memoirs. They tend to be so much more self-important than this one. And and then there’s, you know, great stuff about how he fought with Michelle, about, you know, his political ambitions and how much she didn’t like being involved in politics. But then, you know, she went along with it because he could talked her into it because he could probably talk anybody into anything. And and just it just is so easy to relate to, so well-written. One of the things that really stuck with me is this moment that he takes just as he’s about to win the 2008 election when his grandmother dies or she she’s very sick and he goes to see her and he has to take a break to go out and walk through this neighborhood, which is basically where he grew up in roughly because his his his grandparents raised him through a big chunk of his childhood. And he’s he describes just walking through his neighborhood and remembering specific things, coming home from school, playing with friends, this or that. You know, he has a few specific memories and thinking that when his grandmother dies, there will be nobody left who remembers what that part of his life is like but him. And it’s just this really beautifully written moment, like something from a novel. And it’s right in the middle of this historic presidential campaign. And it just makes the whole thing feel grounded in a way that is just really unusual in political memoirs.
S3: OK, we could talk about this forever, but we don’t have forever. So is there one or two titles from the fiction and nonfiction list you want to shout out to before we have to go?
S9: Well, here are two books that did not make it on a lot of other top ten list that I really want to single out. And one is Piranesi by Susanna Clarke, which is a sort of borgerson, slightly fantastical novel about a man who lives in an infinite house, that the lower floors are flooded by the seas and the upper floors are filled with clouds. And he lives there all by himself except for one other person. And how he gradually comes to understand that his existence is not what he thinks it is. And that is a beautiful novel. It seems like it would be sort of weird and cold and experimental, but it is like so many of the books on my list, sort of filled with humanity and and warmth and optimism. And the other is Fathoms The World in the Whale by Rebecca Giggs, which is a fantastically written book about whales and the environment and human beings. It’s it’s an amazing book just for some of the descriptions. What kind of nailed it for me was in the first chapter, a description of what’s called whale fall, which is what happens when a whale dies in the open ocean and its body slowly sinks and all the different creatures that come and feed off of the body at the different levels and how its appearance changes as it goes down and the creatures that are eating it becomes stranger and stranger looking. And it’s just so, such a ravishing description. Obviously, it’s about whales and whales are amazing, but it’s very wide ranging and there’s a lot of kind of mind blowing stuff about the the way that. So much of what humans produce is actually in Wales now and how whales have affected the environment in the past and the and the diminishment of whales has affected the environment. It’s just it’s just like one of those books that’s just full of wonder that I can’t recommend more highly.
S1: OK, we should say that by the time our show posts, the list may not be up, if not, it’ll be up within a couple of days at Slate. And Laura wants us to note as well that Dan Quizes list of best books of the year will be up alongside it. So check it out. All right. Moving on.
S3: All right, now is the moment in a podcast when we endorsed Dana. What do you have, Steve?
S5: I am going to crowdsource my endorsement this week, and it’s inspired by a conversation that I had that we had on the show a few weeks ago that turned into a Twitter conversation, including Carl Wilson, Slate’s music critic, who hopped in. And it was this idea that because we do our Summer Strutt playlist every year, that we should do a corresponding winter playlist that has the kind of music that you take long winter walks to, especially this winter when the only entertainment we have is essentially taking long walks outside. And so Carl and some other people on Twitter were putting in suggestions for this Winter Walk playlist. I thought that maybe I’d start it with that Ludovico Einaudi piece that I endorsed on here a couple weeks ago. That is all around the theme of walking. And so I want to solicit from listeners ideas for this this Winter Walk playlist. And I have a couple of maybe not exactly rules, but maybe a couple of guidelines to help you choose. I mean, I think the best winter walking music is mainly lyric free, although if there was an amazing song to include, I would I would accept that as well. And I’m interested in things from different cultures, maybe not only Western music, because like I was saying earlier in our Spotify segment, I also love to explore classical music of different traditions. And I want people to introduce me to some great wallowing music that you could just have on in your headphones as you crunch through the snow with your dog. I think I’ll also put on for Julia, the Andrew Rangel arrangement of the Bach Partitas that she has is her number one Spotify for the year. But that’s sort of the idea, autumnal and wintry Sollom or sad or thoughtful music to walk by. So if you have suggestions, send it to me. I will compile a winter walk Spotify playlist and share it on a future show.
S3: That is cool. Laura, what do you have?
S10: Well, interestingly enough, my endorsements, it’s a it’s one big endorsement with a mini endorsement are also wintery. I was reading a new memoir called Wintering the Power of Rest and Retreat and Difficult Times by Katherine Mae, which is just an interesting book about any period where you have to sort of retreat from the world, as we all are now. But it could also be, you know, following an illness or a big failure or a job loss or divorce, who knows? But it’s about sort of hunkering down, which it’s very beautifully written. But the thing that it sent me to that is my main endorsement is a book that I read as a child that completely enchanted me, which is called Moumin Troll Midwinter by Toby Johnson. I hope I’m pronouncing that correctly. You either know about the moments which are ostensibly trolls, but they look like very small white hippos and they all live in Moumin Valley or you don’t. And in which case I probably sound like an insane person. But Moumin Land Midwinter is the story of how Moumin Troll, who sort of the main youthful moumin in the whole series wakes up in the winter when all of the other movements and most of the other creatures in Moon Valley are hibernating. And he goes out into the world and his home is completely transformed. He’s never seen snow before. There are some creatures that are only there in the winter time, and it is so beautifully written, even in translation. And so it just casts an amazing spell that is completely worth rereading as an adult. And that’s what I’m reading right now. Mm hmm.
S12: Toei Enson is so, such a brilliant children’s book author and illustrator. It’s just odd to me that she’s not a little bit more classic in the U.S. than she is.
S3: Can you spell that last name?
S10: It’s T o, v, e, j and S01 Tova Gensen.
S3: OK, cool. I am psyched to check that out. I have to say, Laura, I have for my endorsement this week something more like a question that I have to ask you. Oh OK. I am about 50 percent of the way through the elementary particles by Michelle Welbeck. Do I love it or hate it?
S10: You know, I need you to tell me I have not read Welbeck because he just seems like such a repellent human being that I didn’t think I could endure it. And I definitely have many friends who think very highly of him. But the things that the think highly of him are all things that make me go, hmmm, so I can’t help you here. You’re on your own, Steve.
S4: Then the mystery persists, Laura, because I’m as I said, I’m halfway through.
S1: I alternated between wanting to hurl the book out of a window and complete disgust or like into the open flames, right. And just. Greedily flipping the pages in order to continue reading and figure out where this is going, I mean, and I throw it open to the to the listeners to I mean, first of all, clearly, he is a kind of genius. Right. But that doesn’t really tell you much of anything. Those it’s an exploration of two massively, massively fucked up. I mean, really deeply broken and damaged men, half brothers, as well as being something like a considered exploration of how humanity has debased itself by giving its libido over to the market, to the marketplace, like there’s a. Deep, you know, bitterness about how humanity has abridged itself vis a vis its own sexuality in relation to a commercialized mass culture and its misogynistic, but also about misogyny. I mean, it’s it’s clearly not the the the easy characterization of it as itself simply exploitative and misogynistic, I think would be way, way, way too simplistic whether or not it’s itself finally intrinsically repulsive in itself. I mean, you’re certainly meant to worry that that’s the case, right? You’re certainly meant to be provoked into suspecting that’s possible. And anyway, I just am fascinated by the book. I’ve owned it for 20 years, probably. And finally, it was just time just to read it in an afternoon. And it just it’s taken longer than that. But anyway, I can’t endorse it. But I have to I had to ask. So it’s just basically a question, not an endorsement.
S10: I mean, I to own a copy that’s around here somewhere, but I’ve just never attempted it because I always thought, oh, this is just going to drive me crazy. I mean, the people who I knew who really liked him, who talked about his novels drove me crazy when they were talking about them. But I did actually like he wrote a book about H.P. Lovecraft that I did read and quite liked. So, um, I’m not sure what to make of that.
S3: Yeah. All right. Well, Laura, as always, thanks so much for coming on. Total pleasure. It was a delight. Thank you, Dana. Thank you, as always. Thanks to you.
S2: You’ll find links to some of the things we talked about today on our show page, that Slate dot com culture first and you can email us a culture first at Slate dot com. Uh, we love it when you do. And we have a Twitter feed. It’s at Slate, Colthurst. Our producers, Cameron Drus, our production assistant is Rachel Allen for Laura Miller and Dana Stevens, I’m Stephen Metcalf. Thank you so much for joining us. And we will see you soon.
S5: Hello and welcome to this light blue segment of the Slate Culture Gabfest, our discussion topic today, four plus is centered around Slate’s book critic Laura Miller, because we’re lucky enough to have her as a guest host today. And she wanted to talk about a recent spat that’s taking place on Y.A. book Twitter, which is a hotspot we’ve talked about before on the show. I think Laura. Right. It’s not the first time that there’s been drama erupting on on Facebook, Twitter?
S9: Well, I think that the that the times when there isn’t drama erupting on why a book Twitter would be the exception to the right.
S5: That’s that’s the big three point headline. So can you run down this this latest spat for us? It has to do with Canada City and with what young people should and should not be assigned in classes. And I’m not quite clear on why people are so furious about this question, given that it’s sort of an age old one that’s ultimately irresolvable. But what’s what’s the latest wrinkle that you wanted to talk about?
S10: OK, well, the chronology of this is a little tricky to figure out, as it often is with Twitter, but I believe it started with a white author named L.A. who began a sort of Twitter thread by just calling out for people to, you know, list the worst classic books ever, books that she felt actively discouraged young people from reading and invited others to contribute their own most hated classics. And, you know, I think her first one was her first claim was that Moby Dick actively kills brain cells. But this this is like a kind of a classic trash talking Twitter thread. And then an educator named Lorena German chimed in to just sort of say to point out that a lot of of classic texts that are sometimes assigned to young people were written in past periods when people had different values that we do not endorse today and that maybe they may be sexist, that might be racist, that might be classes that could just be, you know, homophobic or whatever. And that’s something to keep in mind when assigning these books. And then yet another Y.A. author named Jessica Lewis chimed in, too, with this kind of rant about Germans remarks in which she, you know, retorted that if you think Hawthorne was on the side of the judgmental Puritans and The Scarlet Letter, then you are an absolute idiot and should not have the title of educator in your Twitter bio. And it just went on from there. It’s a series of tweets that Jessica Clueless engaged in, which really sounded like she was drunk. That was my thought. But it’s really hard to tell with via Twitter because everything is always turned up to 13 on Y.A. Twitter. Like, it’s not just that I hated Moby Dick, it was boring. And I think most other kids would feel the same way. It has to be that it actively kills brain cells. And if you, you know, question Hawthorns approach to Puritan values, then you should not be able to call yourself an educator. I mean, they’re just it’s like so the whole thing is so over the top. But because this woman just did a whole streak of these, everyone got very upset about about her criticizing this educator. I don’t know, you know, like maybe we shouldn’t go too much into this because it is one of these ridiculous fights that often happens on Twitter, except that it did result in Jessica Chloes losing her agent who was pressured into denouncing her and and severing all ties. But the thing that was interesting about this is the way that the issue of what books school children should be assigned and whether certain classics are obsolete and should be replaced by more contemporary works is an argument that just comes up again and again and not just in Y.A. Twitter. I mean, in my many you know, in my several decades of being a literary journalist, it is just something that rises like a phoenix from the ashes of the last flame war that that it triggered. And it was it was an interesting question to look at at this at this moment, partly because so many children are being educated at home and who knows what their parents are, are asking them to read as part of their language art segment. But one thing I did really struck me from this from this whole quarrel is that often the sense of what books are assigned to schoolchildren seems way out of line with what books are actually assigned. But I was not assigned to read either Moby Dick or The Scarlet Letter before. College and I’m pretty old, you know, that’s a long time ago, and I also was assigned to read some contemporary books when I was a school child, you know, when I was in high school or junior high school, as we called it then. And so sometimes these arguments seem to be based on like a sort of a straw man of like everybody is being forced to read Ethan Frome and a Catcher in the Rye and Old Man in the Sea. And nobody is reading books by more contemporary writers or who are women or people of color. And I don’t think either of those things were true, you know, 30 years ago, let alone true now.
S8: I mean, in what universe has a child ever been assigned Moby Dick? I’m confused. I don’t read Moby Dick until I was 31 or something. Nobody made me.
S10: Yeah, exactly. But there are other you know, I mean, like, I’m sure everybody has some kind of assigned reading that they were given when they were in. High school or middle school, but that they hated, even though it was supposed to be great, I mean, Steve, did you have one of those?
S1: Oh, you know, as someone who grew up to be worshipped, George Eliot, I thought mill on the floss in high school was just terrible. And turns out it’s not like that’s a whole subset of this argument is getting assigned the wrong work by the right author. But, you know, look, when I tuned into this, you know, this dust up, it struck me it was three three elements that in and of themselves are are, you know, provocative and then taken together. Just going to be absolutely explosive in the first is, you know, just the issue of the canon, like what we decide to what we decide to keep alive, frankly, from the past. Right. Because if you don’t teach, I mean, this is this is a point that I always come back to. Yes. Yes. We can not teach Shakespeare. We can not teach Milton. We cannot teach Hawthorne and Melville. It may be the absolutely the right thing to do to not teach them. I’m going to be agnostic on that question. But if we don’t teach them, they disappear. Right. That in in a in a a.. As a.. Literary culture. As the United States, if you don’t include certain things on the formal curriculum, they have no means of reproduction from generation to generation. So let’s at least be clear on what the cost of not teaching is. So, you know, there’s this highly politicized battle about what you teach and what you don’t teach. There’s what the effects of anything you do in a school are on on the hostage students. And then there’s Twitter and you bring these three things together. And people, they’re just going to get their, you know, their backs up so quickly and so intensely. And it was clear this debate was going to go absolutely nowhere. I do find it weird that this that that we neurotically we return to the issue of the canon over and over and over again while making zero progress. The one thing I will observe as a parent is that, you know, first of all, I think you can teach anything if you teach it the right way, if you place it in a certain kind of context and teach to talk to kids as if they’re not moral idiots who are just or totally unformed pieces of clay that are going to take the impressive anything that you give them. That is not the way they are think or read almost no matter how young they are, how young they’re in. The second thing I’ll say is if you hand them literature that’s didactic, whose only value is in promoting, you know, the the virtues of a diversity and inclusion or social empathy, they will see right through it. I mean, every time my kids were given something to read where the intrinsic pleasure of it was subordinated so totally to the obvious didactic purpose of it, they rejected it wholesale. And I think that that’s going to be true of a lot of kids. I completely agree that, you know, anybody from a non-traditional, nontraditional background in a private school, you know, anybody who’s been marginalized or other other by American culture historically, absolutely ought to be reading things that reckon with that history and that stop dead at the school door, those processes of marginalization and othering. But it is warping, condescending to hand such a person something that is that is facile in its moral orientation because they’re not facile in their moral orientation. They know that they are more that they are substantially the sum of their struggle, you know, as, let’s say, a person of color, a transgender person. But they know that they’re not exhaustively that. And literature does something, you know, to experience as including but not limited to our received identities. So I would just be wary of of that. I think we need to really credit kids. They’re discerning. You know, they’re just a lot of what they watch on TV, a lot of what they watch in movies, a lot of what they read online. That’s not, quote unquote non-literary. A lot of the music we listen to is enormously, enormously sophisticated. You know, it may not be high culture and it may not be old, but it’s hugely sophisticated and they’re sophisticated consumers of it. If you hand them something that’s kind of a cartoon telling them, you know, how to be a good citizen in twenty twenty, they will find it boring and probably not read it.
S10: So I think that there are a lot of great contemporary books that deal with all of these issues that this particular educator, you know, wanted to see more represented in assigned reading for school children. I think there’s a difference between the canon as it’s taught in college and books that are assigned to school children, because there’s an element of choice for a college student that is not there for the school children. And and things are. In a different way in college, but, you know, children are like adults in that they read in various ways and they get various things out of the books that they read to just share a personal experience with some, you know, pretty standard classics, you know, that I was given in school. I loved reading Tom Sawyer because that was basically the sort of running around pretending to be things and getting into all kinds of mischief with completely my childhood, with my four brothers and sisters. We were like wild animals and I completely identified with that and did not notice what a horrible, horrible person Tom Sawyer is by pretty much any standard. And I hated reading Animal Farm because I had a very tender heart when it came to animals. And I just it was too sad and it was too brutal. But, you know, I can’t say that I got that much out of Tom Sawyer later in life, but I did get some conceptual tools from Animal Farm that really came in handy for me. So, you know, even just what a kid enjoys is not always that indicative of what is a meaningful reading experience. And also just you you never know what somebody is going to like. I mean, yeah, as a child, I did not want to read about, you know, little girls just like me, but maybe on the prairie or whatever, you know, like I wanted to read about Wild Adventures. Some other little girls want to read about little girls or, you know, who whose lives are almost exactly like their own, vice versa with boys. You know, some might want to read about adventures. Some might want to read more introspective stuff. Some might prefer nonfiction. Children like adults have varying tastes and assigning a variety of books to them is a good idea. Just because every single book isn’t going to hit the idea that people have that you’re supposed to like every single classic is absurd. There are always going to be classics that you don’t like and that other people really do. It doesn’t mean that Moby Dick kills brain cells. It doesn’t mean that that there’s no redeeming value in this in the Scarlet Letter. It’s just, you know, it varies from person to person. And this seems to be one of the hardest things people have to reckon with, you know, with any kind of book, you know, the book that wins the Pulitzer Prize. I hated it. What’s wrong? The world is falling apart. I didn’t like the book that won the prize. It’s it’s a it’s a very it’s a very common misperception about how reading and how literary quality work.
S5: Yeah, I didn’t follow this in real time on Twitter, Laura, I caught up with it later when you sent us the links, but it struck me that this this fight was a subset of one of my least favorite Twitter trolls, which is the state your unpopular opinion.
S8: Yes, right.
S12: Which isn’t only about books, but can be about food or about anything. And it is really just essentially sort of starting a fight and then running away and watching people fight about something that’s absolutely ridiculous to fight about.
S8: Like mayonnaise is terrible.
S5: Let’s all battle about it. Obviously, there are you know, that’s that’s there are fewer real life stories and histories wrapped up in mayonnaise is terrible versus it’s not terrible. Then questions about Cananea City in books, but it just seems like social media is is a real brewing spot for these kinds of arguments that are ultimately unwinnable because they’re all about taste, but are a place that you can say things like Moby Dick kills brain cells and then run off and watch people fight about it. And that just seems like such a profoundly uninteresting thing to do. And I feel like if there’s one thing that we would want to transmit to kids about reading, you know, irrespective of what’s in their canon or not in their canon, it’s, you know, don’t don’t think that it’s a cool thing to do to drop that kind of absurd, reductive opinion and then, you know, wait for people to fight it out. I mean, doing that seems stupider than anything that you could possibly assign to kids in class output. All right. Well, there’s always more to say about candidacy city and fighting on Twitter, but that, I think, will wrap up our Slate plus segment for this week. So thanks to you, Laura and Steve. And thank you so much to all of you listeners who subscribe to Slate plus and keep us all going and we’ll talk to you next week.