Monday, March 30, 2015
Back in the winter we had the Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour, which tensely sat with an increasingly gaunt Edward Snowden as he was opening the can of NSA worms. The writhing, slimy contents announced that there's no such thing as privacy anymore. Suspicions we used to write off as tinfoil hat-style paranoia have pretty much been confirmed: our government is ogling us, collecting our minutia and forming opinions about us based on that. The revelations were the right mix of terrifying and depressing that I needed to just have a little lie down for a while.
And yet, I'm not sure how scared we should be of our governments – or at least that threat is so large that it's vague, difficult to specifically sweat. Digesting Jon Ronson's new book, So You've Been Publicly Shamed, I think it's each other that we really have to be more immediately and tangibly weary of. Yes the government is watching us, but we're also watching us, and I'd hazard to say that we're somewhat less responsible and more trigger-happy than our Western government. Collectively, we seem to be crouched in wait online, in our own social crows nest, ready to point out and punish any transgression that appears in our crosshairs. No mistake, from spelling and grammar flubs to unpopular political purviews, shall go unpunished.
Our town squares no longer feature pillories, but we also don't really have town squares anymore either. Social media and comment sections have become the new gathering places, chockablock with soapboxes and stocks. Ronson finds this out first hand when another Jon Ronson, one with his face, starts Tweeting an unflattering, effete parody version of Ronson himself. The author tracked the doppelganger – an "infomorph" – down to some university kids. After a confrontation, they refused to kill the spambot, but agreed to sit down with the real Ronson for a YouTube interview. In the video, the academics explained that this was all a means of pointing out how identity is complicated in the digital age. The three come out looking absurd, and Ronson feels pretty chuffed with himself – he's caught, cornered, and shamed these academics. The comments on the video are likewise on his side, which he's likewise happy about, until they take on a tone beyond support. "These fucked up academics deserve to die painfully," reads one comment. And it's then that Ronson starts to understand and worry about the public forum he's brought his beef to, the public that he's appealed to.
From there, Ronson sets off into the sometimes brave, sometimes callow new world of public shaming, talking to those who've had their lives dismantled, those who've triggered and participated in this undoing, and those who make a living helping the shamed take back their online identity. He talks with Jonah Lehrer, who was caught fudging Bob Dylan quotes and then subsequently agreed to perform a public apology in front of a live Twitter feed dressing him down in real time. And he spends considerable time with Justine Sacco, the publicist with only 100 Twitter followers who drew the ire of the whole world when she made an awkward joke about AIDS just as she was boarding a plane to Africa. While she was in the air, the Tweet had gone beyond her 100 followers – people who ostensibly knew Justine well enough to know that she was trying and failing to be sarcastic about white privilege – reaching an online world that wanted her head. The whole Internet waited for her to land, an execution pulled off like a surprise party, eager for her to discover that they – we – had judged and juried her before she even knew she'd been caught.
Looking at it that way, we're terrible people, behaved more rashly and callously than Justine might have in her Tweet, as we perceived it. But we ripped her apart on the side of right, we probably all thought.
Ronson also talks to Ted Poe, the former Houston judge who became famous for punishing criminals through wacky public scenarios, or, as one of his critics put it, "using citizens as virtual props in his personal theater of the absurd." Poe's argument is that some people feel too good about themselves, and this pride is a key ingredient in their transgressions. Humiliate them, destroy their confidence, and you cut down on recidivism. Maybe we don't use that much forethought, but the germ of that idea in active every time we dig into someone online.
Putting a comment on the Internet is about as easing as falling off a bike. We share articles or videos or pictures, glance at them – some for longer than other, birthing the Internet abbreviation "tl;dr" (too long; didn't read) – and weigh in. Thanks to accessibility, we find ourselves involved in the ideas and deeds of people we don't know and will never meet. Of course, this boundless interaction is a great way for us to shed light on moral or political or personal issues in a world we don't directly live in but are all a part of. But it's also a great way for us to be bored assholes who forget that the cranky, petty, thoughtless stuff we do and say and share on the Internet registers IRL.
Arguably, there's a healthy element to shame. It's how morals and mores are preserved in communities. It's a way of calibrating. Jonah Lehrer's journalistic malfeasance absolutely should have been brought out into the open and Justine Sacco's joke wasn't very funny. But did the punishments fit the crimes? Was the shaming productive or just destructive? The problem with mass engagement such as our online interaction produces, is that there's little room for nuance.
I'm sure few if any of us would ever wish someone dead in an Internet comment, but everyone takes part in communal, cumulative misunderstanding. Bolstered by a mix of anonymity, ease, and idleness, we get involved without having to get involved. With no skin in the game, our capacity to react and opine is boundless. The momentum of online opinion reminds me a bit of a firing squad in which only one undisclosed gun is loaded – everyone could be the executioner, so no one is. In another way, it's death by a thousand pricks. We have access to, and open ourselves up to, each others lives in a way the NSA couldn't even dream. But we can get away with it because none of us think there's actually a bullet in our gun.
So You've Been Publicly Shamed makes for an always entertaining, finally frightening reminder that you, me, and everyone we know are packing heat.
A day doesn’t stroll by where I don’t trip over a pile of books touting the transformative power of something. Diets, revolutionary technologies, environmental fixes, economic or fashion makeovers stack up on the monetized horizon of Big Change. Grand revisions certainly do stir the abstract volumes of this idealist’s stockpiling heart, but I’m always happiest to find a book that maps the progressive directions we can saunter if we fully explore what we’re already good at. Then in walks journalist Dan Rubinstein’s Born to Walk: The Transformative Power of a Pedestrian Act (ECW Press) with its tour of the possibilities, impasses, and, ultimate benefits, of putting one foot ahead of the other in our automated and ecologically fragile trudge. Shadowing the likes of doctors, politicians, academics, inventors, activists, police officers, urban explorers as they stride, Rubenstein covers a varied, person-paced landscape. Studies and stories mount to confirm that walking steadily reduces violent crime, alienation, distractibility, depression, and other public health problems, while putting urban planning, political awareness, and (social, perceptual, and ecological) connectivity on firmer footing. By outlining some of the many everyday approaches to what used to be way we mostly got around, Rubenstein makes a moving case for getting off our ideal asses and getting more done.
Brad de Roo – who, before he got a big stereo to popularly channel his teenage suburban rage, used to take three-hour walks along the drained creek-beds, earmarked woodlots, and forest-branded strip malls to see what was going on
What about walkers moves you? Do you have favourites?
One of the people I spent time with for the book was a man in New York City named Matt Green, who is walking every block of every borough. He started on New Year’s Day, 2012, and he’s about a year away from finishing. Matt blogs about his walks (imjustwalkin.com), but that’s not the point of his project. He’s doing this, in his words, to submit to a “constant, wide-ranging, uncurated flow of stimulation and information that overwhelms our innate tendency to try to fit everything into a neat and tidy set of preconceptions.” I love that! He’s walking to demonstrate that every place can be interesting and engaging, if you explore its fine-grained textures on foot. That it's hard to really know if you’re going to like something unless you give yourself a chance to experience it. But really, all of the people I walked with and write about in the book, from Innu surgeon Dr. Stanley Vollant to British MP Rory Stewart, from members of the health walk group in Glasgow to the beat cops in Philadelphia, were inspiring. They’re demonstrating that even — or especially — in places where people face significant obstacles, walking can help swing the pendulum back toward healing.
What about walking authors? Is there a fictional or poetical expression of walking that epiphanically gets under your feet or which sets you on track?
As much as I respect and admire (and am humbled by) authors such as Rebecca Solnit and Bruce Chatwin, and other iconic figures in walking literature going back hundreds of years, as a lifelong journalist, I often find that when I read writing about walking that takes a philosophical or poetic approach, I want something different — something more pragmatic, more directly related to the overarching social challenges we are facing today. Rory Stewart’s book about walking across Afghanistan, The Places in Between, is a step in this direction — his experiences give him tremendous insight, for instance, when speaking about the pros and cons of international intervention in foreign conflict. I’m also drawn to the work of city planners such as Jeff Speck (Walkable City), and Canadian writers like Charles Montgomery (The Happy City) and Trevor Herriot (The Road is How), because their books address specific aspects of walking — the ability of urban walkability to make our cities more functional, and the spiritual properties of a good long walk, respectively. What I tried to do in Born to Walk was connect a lot of disparate dots — ideas that doctors, scientists, urban planners, politicians, economists, artists, historians, pilgrims and other writers have explored, but ideas that have not necessarily been linked together in a logical narrative. And the foundation beneath this was the work of other writers.
Your book clips along at steady pace, interweaving the various narratives of walkers into a single path. Does this form have any parallels in the way you walk? The way your mind walks?
There’s no conscious link between walking and the way I write, but every story is like a journey, whether it’s an entire book or the chapters that comprise a book, so there is a definite parallel. When walking or writing, you have a starting point and an end point, and you don’t necessarily take a linear route from one to the other. The best narratives, and the best journeys, meander. It’s fun to wander down tangential side paths, even if you have a specific destination in mind; you’re going to get there ultimately, and will be richer for the experiences you have along the way. The people who populate my book, no matter how different they are, I saw them all as part of the same whole — an interest in walking was the narrative through-line that connected them, but they each represented a spur trail, and most of these side routes eventually linked back to the main path (or argument). I do get ideas when I’m out walking. Concepts crystallize when I’m heading somewhere on foot. If I’m struggling with a particular passage, walking can provide the creative energy I need to break through. But because I’ve been writing about walking, sometimes going for a walk only made the writer’s block worse. I’d be thinking so much about one particular aspect of walking meant that getting out for some air wasn’t a mental break at all. But even if there was no breakthrough during a walk, the answer or idea would often come to me later; the effort would pay off.
While discussing long-distance pilgrimages you suggest that you are less about grand walks and more keen on incorporating walking culture into your everyday. Having said this, are there any celebrated walks you'd just love to take on?
I would love to walk on gorgeous trails through distant landscapes, and on ancient routes through distant cultures. Anywhere. Patagonia comes to mind, thanks to Bruce Chatwin. New Zealand is spectacular, I’ve been told by many people. And there are routes in Asia and Africa, of course, that people have been walking for centuries. Going on a trek along one of these trails would be an immersion into a culture or landscape I do not know; it would be challenging and fascinating and I would learn a hell of a lot. But shorter walks close to home, or longer walks elsewhere in Canada, can also be extremely powerful. They impact your relationship to the people and places where you are, and you see yourself as part of one contiguous community, one contiguous ecosystem. I believe in trying to make change in your own backyard. That whole “think global, act local” thing. And to me, there’s no better way to gain a deeper, more nuanced understanding of the city or country where you live than by walking through it.
What are the greatest current impediments to walking culture in Canada? Do different provinces have different challenges?
The greatest impediments are our fixation on speed and instant gratification, our thirst for big returns on small investments, our obsession with technology (and technological solutionism), media-fuelled fear of the unknown — and plain old-fashioned greed and laziness. And our obsession with cars. Basically, we want results now, we think mostly about ourselves and our own families and friends, and we don’t pause to consider the broader environmental impacts of how we’re living, and the dangers of growing economic inequality. These impediments are fairly consist across Canada. They differ slightly from region to region, from city to city (i.e., Toronto has more of a pedestrian culture than, say, Moncton — two cities I have lived in). The differences are more pronounced between American cities: car-centric Houston compared to, say, progressive Portland, Oregon.
Did your research give examples of places or cultures with better relationships to walking than North America? Who walks the most? What can we learn from their approaches?
The Scandinavians are pretty good at walking (as they are at many things). Plans for a pedestrian mall in Copenhagen were criticized before it was built because it’s a cold, northern city, but when it opened people thronged there, year round. New York and San Francisco are great cities for walkers; they’re dense and lively and are regarded as two of the continent’s walking Meccas. And they’re reaping the economic and social benefits of having a vibrant walking culture. In much of the world, especially in developing countries in Africa and Asia, walking is not a matter of choice but a challenging necessity for millions of people — that’s a different ballgame than the Anglosphere that I write about. But there are examples we can learn from throughout North America and Western Europe. Impose a levy on cars entering the downtown core, as in London. Invest is urban mass transit, like Washington, D.C., did during the freeway-building era in the U.S. Or do what New York City did to encourage cycling: it took one percent of roadway space a year for 10 years and built bike lanes, so the changes were incremental, but at the end of the decade, it had a great system for cyclists.
Many of the walkers you shadow throughout your book seem to be trying to find a more present or embodying world to supplement, or even, replace an abstract, technologically mediated one. Books like End of Absence by Michael Harris or The Glass Cage by Nicolas Carr explore alienation in our time of omnipresent digital connection and automation. Is Born to Walk akin to these explorations?
I don’t have a cellphone. I like to be where I am. My wife and I have an idea we call “the outernet.” It’s like the internet: you can ask questions and learn things, be entertained, “like” things and have “friends,” only it’s all tangible and real. Walking is an ideal way to explore the outernet. A lot of people have lost touch with the physical world in which they live. They’re not outdoors and active, which is why they’re overweight and don’t know their neighbours. They’re glued to screens, which is why they’re hooked on news about celebrity and lurid crimes on the other side of the planet, not tuned in to what’s happening down the street. Unplugged walking connects you to the sights, sounds, smells and rhythms of the places where you spend time. Absolutely, I see Born to Walk as part of a continuum that include books such as The End of Absence.
What was the most affecting fact you unearthed about walking? Why did it affect you so?
Walking makes you healthier and happier, and will help you live longer. Lots of the smaller facts and details and anecdotes I encountered were very striking, but basic life advice doesn’t get much more clear than that.
What advice would you offer a new urban ambler?
My manifesto is three words long. Walk more, anywhere. Whether you’re in the suburbs or have to pass through an industrial park, whether it’s raining or -30 C, walk — you never know what you’ll discover along the way. About the places you pass through, the people you meet — and, of course, about yourself.
Has writing this book put you on the path to any new projects?
I’d love to help make a documentary film about walking, and I’m collaborating with an organization that’s hoping to mount a visual arts exhibition with a walking theme, and still I’m writing some magazine stories about walking that pick up some of the threads I started to unravel in the book. So I’m still very much immersed in walking, though I imagine that I will soon tire of this subject and want to write about entirely different. Born to Sit, perhaps?
Monday, March 16, 2015
The development and refinement of the short story in the early- to mid-century owes so much thanks to economics. A guy could make a nice little living selling fiction to magazines. The stuff didn't need to be good, either, and a lot of it wasn't. The short story was primarily entertainment, it's place in the home was the living room, where it would be gradually replaced by TV. The short fiction of the time, like its usurper, was a mix of junk and art, a venue where the best and the worst artists stretched their legs and stuffed their wallet.
I know we hate to talk about art's interactions with business, but it is an essential element to the short story's maturation. When given the incentive to write often and for as many marketplaces as possible, a writer is lured into territories they might otherwise eschew, an incentive that produced some of the most versatile voices of the century. Though he's responsible for some of the best generation-defining short fiction of the 20s, F. Scott Fitzgerald – thanks to financial straits – was compelled to write some of the best, weirdest genre fiction of the era. And Raymond Chandler, eventually considered one of the best presenters of a gritty, American moral bankruptcy, was attracted to the pulp fiction that would come define him almost solely because he could make a quick buck. And, of course, Kurt Vonnegut's teeth got cut working his way up from the sci-fi rags to the "slicks," and his revolutionary style a melange of his high and low experience.
But then there are writers, mostly relegated to the genre writer distinction, like Theodore Sturgeon (the basis for Vonnegut's Kilgore Trout, if you didn't know), Ray Bradbury, and Harlan Ellison who could write any story for any venue. These were giants created and supported by their environment, who went on to thrive in and define various venues. Throughout their careers, they'd be putting out a new collection of short stories every few years, producing collected short fictions that would bow most bookshelves.
A notorious and lithe genre hopper, Jonathan Lethem has been publishing for about 25 years now. His novels range from western, sci-fi, detective, and straightforward social commentary. Recently, he published his third collection of short stories, Lucky Alan. I received these new stories with unbridled enthusiasm – they're as good as anything Lethem has done – but, a drop of ink in that pure milky glee, I can't believe that this is only Lethem's third collection. And each new book of short stories seems to be shrinking, and the range of publications they originally appeared in has likewise dwindled to mostly The New Yorker. It's a hypothetical shame, as Lethem has all the makings of those aforementioned masters. He's one of those rare writers who brings both a learned intelligence and a limitless imagination to his work. With the right impetus, he could be similarly publishing constantly, collecting the best of it consistently.
In 2012, Lethem put out the 500-page collection of non-fiction, The Ecstasy of Influence. This, in addition to a previous collection of non-fiction, as well as short studies of the film They Live and the album Fear of Music. The breadth of Lethem's interests is fully on display in Ecstasy, ably lillypadding from all manner of cultural subjects. It's a wonderful collection, and I wouldn't trade it for anything, but it also makes for something of a dousing rod, shivering in the direction of money.
No one's getting rich or anything, but this does shine a light on an interesting trend: creative non-fiction has been slowly moving into the magazine spaces once occupied by short fiction. It's odd to think that, if they were writing today, F. Scott Fitzgerald would be writing reviews of the new season of Girls, Raymond Chandler opining about Adam Sandler's place in Hollywood. There's no shortage of short story collections every year, a surprising amount of which are great. But they never seem to accrue to much. Few are the writers who stick with the short story long enough to really make it work. Names like Alice Munro, or Lorrie Moore, or George Saunders are exceptions. Few collections of short stories sell much, and there are few and fewer venues who pay well to publish individual ones. The conditions just aren't conducive to long burns.
In this a bad thing? Not necessarily. I love short stories probably more than the next guy, but it's hard to argue with the free market. The balance isn't always perfectly calibrated, but for the most part what gets published is what people want to read, what people will buy. But at the same time, I do get a little winsome thinking about alternate realities and alternate careers. I look at the three books of Jonathan Lethem's short fiction I've got on my shelf and wish that shelf drooped under the weight of more of them.
After years of reading about the Internet in books and newspapers, we decided we'd finally check it out for ourselves. We liked the place so much – though some of its denizens seem really angry about something – that we bought some land, and for a while now we've been building a full-on website. We should be ready to start having people over in the spring.
We're working to make The Bookshelf's online home as vibrant as our brick and mortar headquarters here on Quebec St. Everybody who sees movies here, or who come to book launches or rock shows or dinner are what make this place what it is. We hope to try and fill up our site with comparable smarts and vim. Like our store, this site is for you guys; we just work here.
This is an open call to contribute to our new site. For a few years now, we've had a review program that yields mostly Fiction and Non-Fiction. We're looking for people who are interested in all corners of books. Are there yoga books that you're jazzed for? Recipe books you've been itching to try out? Musician biographies you want to sing the praises of? Board books that your toddler can't get enough of? Let us know and we'll do our best to get you books that are in your wheelhouse.
But of course, our shelf holds much more than just books. Are there new albums, new beers, or new films that are blowing your hair back? Or broader cultural ideas and issues that you're itching to weigh in on? And because we're as much in Guelph as we are of it, we want to talk about everything going on the city that's not just confined to our little plot.
If you're interested in being a part of the new Bookshelf website, let us know. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can specify your bailiwicks or simply let us know that you might be generally interested and we'll keep you dialed in as things progress. We're still hammering out the details of compensation scales, so stay tuned for those specifics as well!
In the meantime, have you seen this?
Monday, March 9, 2015
When I was a squirt I had the gall to complain to Mom and Dad, on their respective Days, "When's Kid's Day?" Their response was never a surprise: "Every day is Kid's Day." This past Sunday, while we were all waking up a little disoriented from the time change – my Mom emailed me to remind me of the switch – it was International Women's Day. It's an odd "celebration," mostly because it inversely describes a similar reality to the one I poked at as a kid. Having one day for Women really hangs a lantern on the fact that the remaining days of the year are earmarked for Dudes.
On Sunday everyone was Tweeting and Facebooking thanks to the women in their life, sharing articles about either triumphs or setbacks. Less so on Monday. But, of course, for me, you, and everyone we know, the world isn't so imbalanced. We live in a nation within a nation; we're in the patriarchy, but not of it. We're hunkered down in a sovereign day-to-day where every day is International Women's Day, every month Black History Month, every parade a Pride Parade. Good for us. We're the good ones. Right?
Since 2012, Canadian Women in the Literary Arts (CWILA) has, amongst other efforts, been tracking and graphing the gender gap in the national conversation, both in terms of who's reviewing and who's being reviewed. The disparities shouldn't come as a shock. Even in the supposedly progressive realm of the arts, the national pastime of our super-liberal sovereign spot, the scales are wonky. Sadly, like Canadians who define ourselves mostly by how we're not like the US, we oftentimes watch more of their TV and know more about their politics.
It's been a weird year for women in North America. In my own mind, things started off early, back in September 2013, with David Gilmour explaining to Emily Keeler on the Hazlitt website that he doesn't teach books by women. It was divisive statement, because, hired on account of his personal, not professional merits, he's allowed to teach whatever he wants. But it was likewise confounding, because to deem books by Canadian women unworthy of teaching just seemed myopic and wrongheaded to anyone who's read even just a story by, say, Alice Munro or Mavis Gallant. Then, in the summer of 2014, what might have started out as niche backbiting became – or should have become – everyone's problem, when more and more women within the video game industry started receiving death threats from and having their lives dismantled by anonymous shitheads on the internet. Still in that blast zone, similar callow shitheads stole and distributed the private images of a barrowful of celebrities. Then the logs of Ghomeshi and Cosby got turned over, exposing the creeping ugliness of rot.
All this in what we enjoy thinking of as the liberal, progressive nation state of the arts. The real surprise was that any of this past year's ignominies were a surprise to anyone. Equality in the arts is a canard. And because the truth of the matter is something many would be remiss to admit – as with any other chronic problem – it's all the harder to catch and correct. The reported crimes and misdemeanors of 2014 aren't just isolated incidents, but flareups of a congenital issue.
Not just a few people have clucked their tongues at an organization like the CWILA, comparing the project to affirmative action. As with affirmative action, though, it's easy for those who benefit from the imbalance to worry that urging people to go out of their way to engage with the work on the opposite side of the scale means dallying with unfit product just for fairness's sake. A reeking load of spurious plop if there ever was one. While inequalities may seem pithy compared to the systemic abuse described above, both findings are just different-sized mountains of the same range.
Ideally, we spend time with art to take ourselves away from ourselves; and if it really does the trick, our selves are revealed back to us in experiences that aren't ours. Yes, art makes for great entertainment, but entertainment can so easily mean familiarity. "When I was given this job," says Gilmore about his sausage party syllabus, "I said I would only teach the people that I truly, truly love. Unfortunately, none of those happen to be Chinese, or women." A declaration like that is equivalent to saying you only deign to talk to people who share your opinion. It's easy to get mad at a dinosaur like Gilmore, as many did, but I think he's someone you should more feel sorry for.
Urging balance – imploring someone or yourself to read books by people who don't look or live like you – is really just urging recalibration, if only briefly. If good art has any practical use, it's recalibration. Harm, more often than not, is thanks to a dearth of empathy. The wonky pies served by the CWILA surely aren't result of malice, but of habit. Imploring someone or challenging yourself to read more books by women, to listen to more music, see more movies, eye more art – or immerse yourself in the ideas and deeds of someone that doesn't resemble you, whoever you are – isn't a matter of working to balance scales or meet quotas. The point is to change the habits that require scales.