The Books I Read in 2012

In 2012, I set myself the goal of reading 30 books. But then, in June, I started a 1,700 page book, and that was pretty much the end of that. Instead of 30, I ended up with 26 books. That’s still one more book than last year, which is a good thing, but it’s still six books less than 2010, which is not a good thing. I’d like to say I’ll read 30 books in 2013, but with a new baby in the house, I suspect that’ll be difficult. Even so, I’m setting that as my goal: 30 books in 2013.

Here’s the list of books I read in 2012, plus a little blurb of what I thought of it. Enjoy.

  • Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah One of my favorite books from my teenage years, Illusions is semi-new-age philosophy wrapped in a short story about a messiah who is running away from his calling. I read the book with my high-school students as part of our book club, and they loved it just as much as I did when I was their age.
  • The Digital Divide: Arguments for and Against Facebook, Google, Texting, and the Age of Social Networking I assigned this collection of essays to one of my college classes. All the students were freshmen, and most of them are outdoorsy/environmentalist, so the essays didn’t exactly speak to them. I had hoped the students would wrestle with their generational reality, but instead, they just argued and reargued and reargued about the ills of technology. I won’t be assigning this one again.
  • The Ethics of Emerging Media: Information, Social Norms, and New Media Technology I assigned this collection of essays to another one of my college classes for a course on ethics in media. This was for a class full of upperclassmen, so they were more willing than my freshman to listen to the arguments before reacting to them. Not every essay in this collection was strong, but they all did a good job of sparking conversation in the classroom.
  • The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory At the beginning of last year, I had the privilege to engage in a series of deep conversations about religion and atheism with a former professor of mine. During one of our discussions, he recommended this book to me and I quickly sought it out. Unfortunately, I can’t say I enjoyed it. First, it’s a very difficult book, but I’m a decent reader, so I don’t think that was it. Instead, I think it was that I just couldn’t buy any of the author’s original premises, so as the book went on, he just got further and further from anything I could agree with. On the plus side, it gave me plenty to think about and it steered me to the next book on this list, which I loved.
  • The Wake of Imagination This book traced the concept of the imagination throughout history. It’s also a kind of history of art and philosophy. It’s long and sprawling and written well. I highly recommend it to anyone who’s interested in philosophy, art, and history.
  • The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone on the Media I read this one as part of a book club I belong to. It’s a graphic “novel” – but of course, it’s not a novel; instead, it’s an historical look at how the modern media works, how it came to be, and what we need to watch out for as educated consumers of media. I definitely recommend this to anyone with even a cursory interest in the history and theory of modern media.
  • Ghost Pain: Poems I read this collection of poems with my high-school students. The poet is the poet laureate of Vermont. I wanted to read poetry that would be less abstract for my students, and I figured a poet from their neck of the woods might write something they could relate to. Luckily, I was right. The students did have difficulty with the poems, but after our classroom discussions, they all seemed to agree that the poems were brilliant.
  • The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure Another book I read with my book club. While I’ve seen the movie dozens of times, this was my first reading of the book, and I gotta say, it was even better than the movie — and I love the movie. There’s just so much more depth to the book, plus there’s a whole mythology of where the text came from in the first place. Just a delightful read.
  • Gilead This one was strongly recommended to me by one of my friends, and it completely lived up to his recommendation. It’s a quiet book, about a quiet town and a quiet preacher at the end of his quiet life, but there’s just so much heart in it, and so much…reality. A very good book.
  • Waiting for Godot I’ve read Beckett’s play a couple times now, but I read it again with my high-school students this year. I had the students read it aloud in the classroom, and that didn’t seem to be doing much for them…so we also watched the classic film version of it, and that’s when they finally realized how funny and yet, how sad it is.
  • Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot: A Reference Guide I read this short little guide in preparation for teaching the play for the first time. Some decent historical stuff in there, but nothing Wikipedia can’t tell you.
  • Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power This is Rachel Maddow’s book about how the United States military-industrial complex came to power and how our politicians have elected to use it. A quick read, but insightful. Basically, it’s like reading a long, well-written magazine article.
  • The Power of Myth I read this one with my high-school students as well. I wanted to read Cambell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, but I thought it would be a bit too deep for my students. The Power of Myth is a nice introduction to Campbell’s thought, structured as it is around an interview with Bill Moyers. The kids loved it.
  • Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea I picked this one up because the author, Carl Zimmer, is a regular on Radiolab and I heard an interview he did about the book. I’ve read a lot of books on evolution, but I liked the dude and wanted to see how he is as a writer. Well, he’s a good one. If you have any interest in evolution, this book is a great place to start.
  • A Dance with Dragons (A Song of Ice & Fire #5) The fifth book in the series better known as “Game of Thrones” (thanks to HBO), A Dance with Dragons picks up where the fourth book left off. I should probably include the Wikipedia pages for the first four books on this list, because before I started Book #5, I spent about two weeks reminding myself of who the characters were, what they want, and where they are now. I loved the first four books, and this one didn’t disappoint. Now he just better not make me wait another five years before the sixth book comes out.
  • Catching Fire (The Hunger Games #2) and Mockingjay (The Hunger Games #3) I didn’t read the first book in this series, but I did see the movie, and my wife said it was faithful enough to the book that I didn’t have to read it. The Hunger Games series were the most popular books of the past couple of years, so it was only a matter of time before I picked them up, and I gotta say, I was glad I finally did. What the author does in the second and third books was nothing short of brilliant. While I was slightly disappointed in the second book, when the main character is forced back into the Hunger Games, it ended up being a necessary step in the longer story. What I thought would be a long story about how a woman can be just as warrior-like as a man became, instead, a long story about how every warrior comes out of battle with mental and spiritual injuries that take decades to heal (if they ever do). Essentially, the books give the reader the story of someone suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and the fact that every one and their mother is reading these books just makes the author’s accomplishment that much greater.
  • And Then There Were None Another book I read with my high-school students. I wanted to end our school year with something a little more “fun” than Beckett and Cambell, so I went with Agatha Christie’s classic. It was just as fun this time around as it had been 20 years ago when I first read it.
  • The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Structure of DNA I think I came across a reference to this one in Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea, something about it being the first science book written for a popular audience, so I decided to give it a read. It’s a decent book, and after reading some of the criticism it received, it’s definitely a momentous one (again, being one of the first science book written for nonscientists), but I can’t say it’s a killer read. Popular science writing has greatly improved over the last 50-odd years.
  • It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the Politics of Extremism The authors of this book were on The Daily Show; one of them is a Democrat and the other is a Republican, and this is their book about how the Constitution can’t handle the partisanship of today. Basically, another book-length magazine article. Good enough for an airplane ride, which is where I read it.
  • Atheist Manifesto: The Case Against Christianity, Judaism, and Islam I’m a rather devout atheist, but this guy’s reading of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam seemed a tad shallow. There’s not much argument in the book; just a lot of assertions. On the other hand, the author provides a decent bibliography of atheist works, and it led me to the next book on this list.
  • Ecce Homo; or A Critical Enquiry into the History of Jesus Christ; Being a Rational Analysis of the Gospels Written in 1770, this book by Baron d’Holbach is an historical curiosity at best, being one of the earlier outright atheistic books published (anonymously, of course) in Christianized Europe. While the arguments were, I’m sure, radical for their time, too much work has been done on the historicity of the Bible for d’Holbach’s positions to carry weight. But still, a relatively fun read.
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo I didn’t “read” this one as much as listen to it during a drive from Vermont to Chicago. But it held my interest the entire way (my wife, on the other hand, tuned it out rather quickly), and it was much, much better than the movie. Of course, at the end of the day, it’s not much more than an entertaining yarn. I think The Hunger Games has more of a theme than this one.
  • Walden I read this one in the Fall with my high-school students (while also building a life-size replica of Thoreau’s cabin; yeah, my high-school class rocks). I’d read selections of it before, but this was my first time reading it all the way through. While there are definitely some boring parts, I do suggest reading it all the way through. The experience Thoreau had is much deeper — and much more realistic — than what the more popular selections imply.
  • James the Brother of Jesus: The Key to Unlocking the Secrets of Early Christianity and the Dead Sea Scrolls This is the 1,700 page behemoth I started in June and finished in November. It’s drier than my parents’ house in December, and it could have used an editor who would have forced the author to remove the 800 pages worth of repetitive material plus the 200 pages worth of less-than-insightful tangents, and then asked him to rewrite the whole thing in chronological order so that the reader wouldn’t have to reorient himself in space and time every fifth paragraph. But besides that, it’s pretty good. It’ll change your entire understanding of the world that Jesus and the first “Christians” lived in, and what early Christianity actually said about the way we should live our lives. Basically, if you’re not a fundamentalist Jew, then you’re not following the religious views of Jesus; instead, you’ve been suckered into following the Greek-influenced ideas of Paul, whom the earliest Christians (i.e., the apostles) considered the enemy. Good luck with that.
  • October Light A beautiful book about an elderly brother and sister in Vermont in the late 60s/early 70s, the former of whom is Vermont to the bone and the latter of whom has “liberal” ideas. As with other books by John Gardner, it plays around with structure and philosophy, but its heart is in the struggle of its characters. A beautiful book.

And that was it for the year. Hopefully next year, this list will include at least four more books.

Minnesota’s Question of the Year

A friend sent me an article about Minnesota’s Great American Think-Off, which poses a question for people to answer in essays of 750 words or less. Four writers will then debate the question, and the winner will receive a $500 prize (FYI: this post is not my answer).

This year’s question is: “Which is more ethical: sticking to your principles or being willing to compromise?”

While I love the idea of a “think off,” I don’t think the question is a very good one because, as in all things ethics-related, the answer turns on context. There are a thousand different examples we could come up with where the ethical thing would be to stick to your principles, and a thousand more where the ethical action would be to compromise.

One of my college professors, Steven Fesmire, wrote a book, John Dewey & Moral Imagination, in which he makes the analogy that being ethical is like playing jazz. Quoting Martha Nussbaum, he writes, “a responsible action is a highly context-specific and nuanced and responsive thing whose rightness could not be captured in a description that fell short of the artistic.” The jazz metaphor “spotlights and illustrates the empathetic, impromptu, and inherently social dimensions of moral composition,” by which he means, taking a moral/ethical action requires recognizing the social dimension of the problem at hand, understanding and empathizing with how all parties feel and what they’re trying to achieve, and then having the skill to add your own voice and interests in such a way as to contribute, build, and improve upon the general harmony of the moment.

To ask whether it is more ethical to stick to your principles or compromise is like asking whether it’s better to have a saxophone or trumpet in your quartet. The only responsible answer is to say, “Well, it depends.”

Ethics are not written in stone. Like jazz, they are improvisational while also aligning with received tradition and continuous feedback. You can’t write down a list of ethics. All you can do is develop your sense of empathy and add your authentic voice to the song that’s being played.

Onòra’s Lullaby

Onòra, Onòra, Onòra.
Onòra, Onòra, Onòra.
Onòra, Onòra, Onòra.
We’re so happy you found us.

Onòra went dancing in the morning sun.
She laughed and she rhymed and danced in the sun.
She spun and she twirled through the high noon sun.
Onòra’s entranced by the daytime sun.

Oh Onòra, Onòra, Onòra.
Onòra, Onòra, Onòra.
Onòra, Onòra, Onòra.
We’re so happy you found us.

Onòra snuck slowly beneath the evening moon.
She creeped and she crawled and dipped ’round the moon.
She walked on her hands beneath the bright night moon.
Onòra’s entranced by the mystery moon.

Oh Onòra, Onòra, Onòra.
Onòra, Onòra, Onòra.
Onòra, Onòra, Onòra.
We’re so happy you found us.

You had so many chances and so many ways.
You had so many people and so many days.
You could have stumbled into Paris or paraded to L.A.;
instead you came whispering the Green Mountain way.

Oh Onòra, Onòra, Onòra.
Onòra, Onòra, Onòra.
Onòra, Onòra, Onòra.
We’re so happy you found us.

On Arguments Against Stricter Gun Control

In the wake of the Newtown tragedy, a lot of people I’m friends with on Facebook have reacted with posts defending the right of Americans to keep and bear arms. Those posts have argued that individuals who are intent on committing violent atrocities will do so regardless of their access to weapons (i.e., guns don’t kill people; people do). They have also argued that if only more members of society would take advantage of their right to carry a gun, then there would be more opportunities for violent individuals to be stopped (i.e., we need more people concealing and carrying their weapons in public spaces). And finally, they’ve argued that if we enact stricter gun control regulations, then only those individuals who have ill intentions will be the ones carrying the guns (i.e., when guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns).

The first argument — “guns don’t kill people; people do” — falls down when you consider that access to a deadly weapon allows impulsive acts to be carried out much easier than those acts for which time and planning is required. We can look to suicides as an example of this. According to a 2001 study of people who committed near-lethal suicide attempts, “24% took less than 5 minutes between the decision to kill themselves and the actual attempt, and 70% took less than one hour.” While not all of those suicide attempts were gun based, another study found, after controlling for various characteristics such as alcohol abuse, mental health issues, and lack of education, that “the presence of one or more guns in the home was found to be associated with an increased risk of suicide.”

These studies focus on suicide, of course, and we’re talking about homicides, but the point I’m trying to make is that the presence of guns in a home allows people to act on their impulses in a way that is lethal. Sometimes those impulses will be directed at oneself, but often times they’re directed at someone else. While that impulse can obviously be acted upon in other manners (as the knife attacks in China show), reducing the number of guns available would decrease the opportunity for deranged individuals to act on their deadliest impulses.

The Harvard School of Public Heath recently completed a survey of the academic literature and found that “where there are more guns, both men and women are at higher risk for homicide, particularly firearm homicide.” That held true across nations (controlling for income) and across states (controlling for poverty, urbanization, age groups, unemployment, alcohol consumption, and non-homicidal crime). While it may seem true that “guns don’t kill people; people do,” a more accurate statement reads, “guns don’t kill people, but wherever guns are present, more people choose to kill.”

If we accept that access to guns increases the chances that individuals will be able to act on their wildest impulses, then the second argument — that the best way to stop gun violence is to give more people guns — falls apart. This particular argument seems predicated on the notion that criminals would be frightened to commit any acts of crime on the increased chances that one or more of their potential victims would also be armed.

Well, let’s take a look at some data. In 2011, according to the FBI, 72 law-enforcement officers were feloniously killed in the line of duty. 63 of those officers were killed with firearms, and 50 of those were killed with handguns. Five of those officers had their guns stolen from them, and three of them were killed with their own guns. 10 of the officers attempted to fire their weapons, while 27 of them actually fired their weapon. 46 of the 63 officers were wearing body armor.

(By contrast, in 2011 in Canada, where guns are legal but strictly controlled, there were 173 firearm homicides. That’s 173 total; not simply law-enforcement victims, but all victims.)

If 63 armed and trained and supremely cautious law-enforcement officers can be killed by criminals, what makes you think Joe Six-Shooter could stop a deranged gunman who is wielding a semiautomatic or automatic weapon?

On top of that is about a decade’s worth of studies finding that conceal & carry laws do not deter gun violence (see this Media Matters article for a summary of the various studies). In fact, a few of those studies have even found that crime increases in states with conceal & carry laws. While the National Research Council (NRC) concluded in 2004 that the data does not make it possible to draw any “causal link between between the passage of right-to-carry laws and crime rates,” a 2010 study re-examined the NRC’s analysis and said that right-to-carry laws “likely increase the rate of aggravated assault.”

All of which is to say that real-world data does not support the argument that conceal and carry laws stop individuals from carrying out their most lethal impulses, and that even those gun-carrying individuals who are trained to use their weapon against criminals often find themselves on the wrong end of a bullet.

The third proposition — when guns are outlawed, only outlaws will carry guns — is an outgrowth of the second argument, that more guns in the hands of more people will prevent more attacks from taking place. As with the arguments against the efficacy of conceal and carry laws, so it is here: the same real-world data does not support the assertion, and the same “more guns equals more killings” data argues against it.

What’s more, the proposition that only outlaws will have guns neglects the reality that our society includes armed law-enforcement officers, so the proposition is false on the face of it. A better version would read, “When guns are outlawed, police officers will have a better tool to determine who is an outlaw and who is not.”

In a fantastic and sprawling article in New York Magazine, “The Truce on Drugs: What happens now that the war has failed?,” Benjamin Wallace-Wells reports on the way Baltimore reduced the murder rate in its city (along with the number of arrests they made). The key was to stop focusing on busting drug dealers and users and instead focus on individuals with prior weapons charges.

Encoded in Baltimore’s murder records was a singularly interesting piece of data: Over half of the murderers in [the] city had previously been arrested for a handgun violation. The universe of offenders in Baltimore with prior gun convictions was very small, and most of them were serious criminals. Focusing on them seemed plausible. The commissioner did not publicly declare the war on drugs a failure, though he believes that to be the case, or petition the legislature to decriminalize possession. “We just deemphasized it,” [the former police commissioner of Baltimore] says.

Which is to say, police officers in Baltimore could use the fact of gun possession (in conjunction with gun violations) as a way to concentrate on stopping homicides. Not every gun owner was a murderer, of course, but over half of the murderers had guns. By prohibiting conceal and carry, we’d make it easier for law enforcement officials to arrest the bad guys.

Now, to be sure, I’m not arguing that we should ban guns entirely. I used to hold that view, but after living in Vermont for a decade, where the responsible use of guns are part of the culture, I now understand the values held by hunters and their families, and I fully support the right to purchase and use hunting rifles, but I do not and cannot understand why it is legal for individuals to buy automatic and semiautomatic weapons.

I also do not support the ownership of handguns. A 1998 study done by the Center for Injury Control at Emory University in Atlanta found that “for every time a gun in the home was used in self-defense or legally justifiable shooting, there were four unintentional shootings, seven criminal assaults or homicides, and 11 attempted or completed suicides.”

More recent data, taken from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, finds that (quoting from David Frum’s analysis for CNN) “an American is 50% more likely to be shot dead by his or her own hand than to be shot dead by a criminal assailant.”

In short, handguns do a ton more harm than good, and there’s just no reason for that.

“Well,” handgun proponents will say, “What about self-defense?”

The reality is that the chances that your home will be invaded by an armed assailant are rare, and falling steadily with the rest of the country’s crime rate. While there are no statistics for home invasions (no such crime exists; we charge home invaders for specific crimes such as burglary, rape, aggravated robbery, trespassing, etc., and not the broader “home invasion”), Home Invasion News tried to pin down some kind of number by running a Google News search over 24 hours to see how many stories came back. They found 50. There are over 115 million housing units in the United States, which means, on any given day, you have a 0.00004% chance of having your home invaded; in a given year, you have a 0.015% chance. Those percentages seem way too low to accept the increased risk that you or your loved ones will kill or injure yourself or someone else thanks to the presence of that handgun.

All of which is to say: the arguments in favor of the widespread ownership of guns seems highly flawed to me. And I wish people on Facebook would stop making them, unless they’re prepared to truly back up their argument with real-world data.

Fast Drafting

From Angela Quarles:

I realized that I should sign up precisely because it scared the heck out of me. I’d found out by doing NaNoWriMo that writing 50,000 words in 30 days was totally doable. What if it was totally doable to do it in half the time and I was just too chicken to find out? I’d also realized that I had begun to find excuses not to start my new novel idea STEAM ME UP, RAWLEY a steampunk romance set in 1890 Mobile, Alabama. So I signed up. And I did it! Last night at 9:22 I typed THE END and had written 56,267 words in 14 days!

That’s a crazy amount of writing in two weeks.

Where Demagoguery Can Lead You

Earlier this morning, I led my high school students through a discussion of Waiting for Godot. The students will be making a film trailer for their version of the play (we won’t actually perform the play; just make a trailer for it), so I showed them a bunch of YouTube clips of  various performances and commercials for performances. I also wanted them to see how Godot has influenced playwriting and scriptwriting throughout the 20th century, in case they want to do a trailer for a more creative interpretation of the play.

One of the influences we discussed was Beckett’s use of language, the way he sets the language free, allowing it to take command of his characters rather than the other way around (see Lucky’s monologue for the prime example of this). To get to this point, I showed the students a clip from the BBC sketch show, A Bit from Fry and Laurie, where Fry and Laurie, in a very funny way, discuss this very thing.

In the sketch, Stephen Fry makes a hilarious yet intelligent argument about various elements of the English language, and wonders whether English would even allow such a thing as demagoguery. Fry imagines that, had Hitler been speaking in English to an English audience, the people wouldn’t have been riled up by his words, but rather would have laughed at them. This led me to ask the students if they knew what demagoguery is, which then led to me asking whether they’d ever seen Hitler speak.

And it turns out they hadn’t. So off we went again to YouTube, where we found a Hitler speech that included English subtitles.

Anyway, during the speech, which seems to be a kind of coming out party for the Nazis, Hitler talks about when it was difficult to be a National Socialist in Germany. But he says, even then, “when our Party consisted of only seven members, it already had two principles. First, it would be a party with a true ideology. And second, it would be, uncompromisingly, the one and only power in Germany.”

Okay, so we watch that and move on as a class to talk about the ideas for the trailer.

But here’s the thing. Just a few minutes ago, during a quick break, I checked the front page of the NY Times, and what did I see? An article about the Tea Party candidate who just defeated Sen. Richard Lugar (R) in a primary challenge. The blurb of the article reads, “Richard Mourdock, who defeated Senator Richard G. Lugar in Indiana’s primary, rides motorcycles, runs marathons and believes only one party can prevail.”

Now, I don’t want to say that Republicans (or Tea Partiers) are Nazis. That would be a ridiculous statement used by ridiculous people to make ridiculous points in a political argument. But it is telling that Hitler’s principles above — a party with a true ideology and a uncompromising dedication to becoming the one and only power in the country — are more transferable to the Republican party than to the Democrats. It’s easy to imagine Republicans (or Tea Partiers) coalescing around a demagogic leader who brooks no compromises and rallies the faithful to the “fixed pole” of an ideology. It’s less easy to imagine a Democrat who draws a line in the sand.

The question, of course, is whether President Obama should be categorized as a demagogue. I suggest that he should not. He is a gifted and inspiring speaker, that much is true, but demagogues appeal to prejudices and fears, whereas President Obama appeals to hopes and dreams.

I think it can be safely said that the Republicans run on a fear-based platform that appeals to Americans’ xenophobia, homophobia, racism, and ignorance. I’m not suggesting the Democrats are a heck of a lot better — after all, Democrats seem to be demonizing successful entrepreneurs, as well as some of those who are bound by religious/moral precepts — but generally speaking, the Republican platform has a lot more enemies in it than does the Democrats’.

Some examples from Governor Romney’s website:

  • Afghanistan and Pakistan: “We are not safe from enemies who plot freely against us from the other side of the world”
  • China and East Asia: “If the present Chinese regime is permitted to establish itself as the preponderant power in the Western Pacific it could close off large parts of the region to cooperative relations with the United States and the West and dim hope that economic opportunity and democratic freedom will continue to flourish across East Asia”
  • Iran: “The result [of Iran improving its ballistic missiles] will be a nightmarish cascade of nuclear tensions in the world’s most volatile region. Iran’s sponsorship of international terrorism would take on a new and terrifying dimension.”
  • Latin America: “Decades of remarkable progress in Latin America toward security, democracy, and increased economic ties with America are currently under threat.
  • Energy: “…for every ‘green’ job created there are actually more jobs destroyed.”
  • Healthcare: “[Obamacare] will make America a less attractive place to practice medicine, discourage innovators from investing in life-saving technology, and restrict consumer choice.”
  • Immigration: “A porous border allows illegal immigrants to enter the United States, violent cartel members and terrorists possibly among them.”
  • Labor: “Unions drive up costs and introduce rigidities that harm competitiveness and frustrate innovation.”
  • Regulation: “Regulations…drive up costs, hinder investment, and destroy jobs.”

If we compare that to Pres. Obama’s policies, we find that:

  • his economic policies, while addressing “too big to fail” and abusive financial practices, don’t have a real enemy
  • his education policies speak to an expansion of education (more grants, easier loans, protections from high interest, etc.)
  • his energy policy, which is an “all of the above strategy,” tries to strike a balance between environmental protections and energy production
  • he has a whole page dedicated to “equality,” where Romney has a page dedicated to “values”; the former looks at ways the president has expanded opportunity, while the latter focuses on the governor’s desire to overturn Roe v. Wade, stop stem-cell research, and “protect” marriage
  • the President’s healthcare policies also talk more about expansion than protection
  • his national security policies reduce our number of enemies to one (Al Qaeda) rather than expanding the list to include China, Russia, Iran, and parts of Latin America
  • his tax policies do go after millionaires and billionaires, but his wording attacks the tax code (and hence, the legislators who created the tax code) more than it does the people who benefit from the tax code
  • his policies on women’s health continues the argument of expanding opportunity
  • at no point does the President attack or demonize anyone or anything, not even the Republicans

Again, to bring it back to demagoguery, I’m not saying Governor Romney and his fellow Republicans are Nazis. I’m just saying that, after watching Hitler speak this morning and then seeing a NY Times article about a Tea Party candidate who won a Republican primary, I immediately saw how the Fürher’s words resonate in today’s political climate.

The end of the beginning

In June of 2006, a few weeks after graduating from college with a bachelor’s degree in Theories of Writing, I decided to apply to an M.F.A. program in Creative Writing. The only school I wanted to attend required a longish writing sample (20 pages) as part of its application. Because most of the stories I’d written in the past few years were unfinished or less than 10 pages, I needed to write something specific for the application. I decided on a short story whose concept had obsessed me for months: the secession of Vermont from the United States.

My plan for the story was simple in form, but complex in execution. The general idea was to capture the secession in both its planning stage and its aftermath, and to allow the reader to imagine how the secession moved from one period to the other.

But the execution saw me creating a larger cast of characters than usually belong in a short story, with the perspective of the story shifting to a different character with each individual paragraph. Some of those characters were in the present day, but others were two hundred years in the future. The effect, I hoped, would make the reader feel like they were caught in a tornado (which was tied thematically to the idea of secession by way of The Wizard of Oz, i.e., secession leads to a new world of possibilities, and by the concept of the moment, i.e., the ever-swirling influences that come into and move out of each individual moment, including the moment of secession).

After I finished the first draft of the story, which was titled, “If you walk away, I’ll walk away,” something strange happened. I started crying. I remember being so happy with the story, so proud of it, that, all of sudden, it felt like everything I’d ever done, every decision I’d ever made that put me on the path towards being a writer, was validated. It was a pretty great moment, and my emotions were caught in the swirl of it.

After revising it once or twice, I sent the story off to grad school as part of my application, and a few weeks later, I was accepted. For my creative thesis, I decided to turn “If you walk away, I’ll walk away” into a novel. And for the next two years (minus a few weeks at the end of the first semester when I flirted with starting a completely different novel), that’s what I did.

Except I decided from the get-go that I didn’t want it to be a novel. A novel would have followed a relatively straight path from the origins of the secession, through the eventual battle(s), and into their aftermath (perhaps doing so as a trilogy). But I wanted to stay true to the form of my short story, which went “around” the secession rather than through it. I also wanted to use my creative thesis to engage (in a fictional way) with all of the strange, philosophical ideas that I encountered during my undergraduate career. The end result wouldn’t be a novel, per se, but a fictional exploration of political philosophies, utopias, and ontological states of being.

To highlight this, I gave it the working title: The Gods of the Hills: An act of creative non-philosophy.

At the end of the two years, and after receiving feedback from some incredible advisors at the college and from some incredibly supportive friends, I completed the book, now titled (to erase the academic flavor), Gods of the Hill: An Act of Secession.

And then I let the book sit. Didn’t touch it. Didn’t think about it. Completely let it go. For five months.

When Spring came, and I finally picked it up, I sat down with a few glasses of wine, and over a couple of days, read through the whole thing, at the end of which I said to my wife, “I don’t care what anyone thinks. I like that book.”

And then I got to work rewriting it.

This process went on for three more years. I’d finish a rewrite (which, in my process, involved not only cutting and adding scenes, but also a wholesale retyping of every single page), then I’d let it sit for about five months, then I’d give it another read, after which I’d declare how much I enjoyed it, then get to work on another revision.

And then, on Thursday last week (one day before my fifth wedding anniversary), I finished it. That’s right. Finished it. Gods of the Hills: An Act of Secession…is…finally…done.

And on Monday, I sent it off to an agent to see if she’d like to represent it to publishers. Within two hours of receiving my query letter and the first group of the book’s pages, she asked me to send her the whole thing. I can’t tell you how excited that’s made me.

What’s kind of scary, though, is that the agent will be the first person in three years, besides myself, who will have read my book. I completely suspect that she will not want to represent it (it is, after all, a piece of experimental fiction that actively prevents a “traditional plot” from breaking out), but still, the fact that she wanted to read the whole book is a good thing indeed.

Even if she does choose to represent the book, I completely suspect that she’ll have some suggestions on how to improve it, which means, of course, that the book isn’t “done done.”

But sending it off to an agent…it’s a big deal. Because it means that the beginning stage of seeing my manuscript turn into a real book is…truly and completely…done.

There were no tears this time. Just a sense of resoluteness.

Because any way you slice it, five years is a long time.

Oh, and did I mention that my wife and I, after five years of marriage, will be having a baby pretty soon? 

It’s the end of the beginning in oh so many ways. And I can’t tell you how excited that makes me.