Monday, January 9, 2012

From an optimist, a bit of negativity. Followed by optimism.

Negativity—especially of the churlish variety—is not my scene. After a brilliant eureka moment in my early undergraduate life, I put away the majority of my haughty, ironic, suspicious-of-optimism, Judgy McJudgerson teenage legacy and moved on to a much happier existence. The idea of Bronies (which I just read about today) tickles my heart; the sheer joy and exuberance exploding from Jimmy Fallon at every turn on his late late show is my bread and butter.

Not for its cynicism did I spend six years studying Russian lit, nor do I inhabit the young adult and kidlit world in order to have a ready supply of lesser-than things to make fun of. Rather, I did both for the wit and humanism and fantastic use of language so often employed therein. Sincerity and optimism, that's my game.

So you can understand why I have mixed emotions taking time to write about a series of things I've come across thus far in 2012 that, well, I am feeling really negative and judgy about. Even though—or maybe especially because—the negativity comes from a place of optimism. But these things are so tied to what I hold near and dear to my heart that, well, I just want to say something. So I will say my something, and then I will move on. And we will make Mondays days of love and sincerity from here on out.

The first thing that rankled me I saw last week, and was the bizarrely visceral lit-snob reaction to the appointment of Walter Dean Myers as National Ambassador for Young People's Literature. I didn't take the editorial very seriously—I think it was intentionally incendiary (and willfully self-serving), and anyone even a bit clever can understand that the argument doesn't even correspond with the meaning of the actual appointment (an ambassador is not a laureate, or an instructor, or a mirror, for example).

However, I do dislike it when anyone claims that a) literature's only goal is to elevate, and b) that "to entertain, to problematize, or to instruct" cannot simultaneously elevate. I am not claiming that all —hell, I'm not even claiming that literature's only goal should be to elevate. But I do think that anytime a person chooses to read something for their own edification, they are doing themselves a service. All exercises in reading are transformative:
Psychologists from Washington University used brain scans to see what happens inside our heads when we read stories. They found that "readers mentally simulate each new situation encountered in a narrative". The brain weaves these situations together with experiences from its own life to create a new mental synthesis. Reading a book leaves us with new neural pathways. (Washington Univ. in St. Louis, via The Guardian)
…so even if Myers' work is "insipid" (which, whatever. Opinions are opinions.), the act of reading his work can do good just as well as Homer (or any number of increasingly ill-judged bawdy Old English bits) can. Either/or paradigms are harmful, especially if the result is keeping kids from actively engaging, on their own time, with literature, whatever that may be.

In any case, the guy is zany, which comes a dime a dozen, and Myers is still the one with the prestigious appointment, so, again, whatever. Also, I recognize that cultural snobbery is the Achilles Heel that brings out my cynicism. Okay. Water under the bridge.

However, today I came across two more things, in quick succession, that bit at me, and a series of three is always stronger, so. Here we are.

TEDtalks! Why are you doing me wrong?

For some reason, an economist got on stage to talk about his suspicion of stories. Yes, stories. That video is sixteen long minutes of your life, and I don't necessarily recommend anyone watch it, but there it is for those interested.

The takeaway is, humankind's tendency to frame everything—memories, lives, advertising—into stories is somehow…reductive? Constricting? Bad? Honestly, I'm a clever person, able to read literary criticism in Russian, but I could barely follow his argument. It was very…personal, I think. And yes, maybe I was feeling a bit ornery, my very avocation being called to task, but. Please.

Stories are used because framing the chaos and mess (which Cowen wants us to instead embrace, yet somehow not try to frame for better understanding) is how we make sense of life, how we can find meaning and move forward from the things that happen to us. I can understand the desire to be suspicious of stories people tell when selling something—obviously. Sales is a game, and you should always look outside the pitch's box. But just being human and telling stories? Being suspicious of that just promises exhaustion.

Being (and using) awesome.

This was highlighted in today's Shelf Talker, and it totally caught me off-guard. A bookselling dude in California has made it his mission to cull the word "awesome" from everyday English, citing its ubiquity and utter lack of real meaning as a source of physical pain.
"Saying the word in my presence is like waving a crucifix in a vampire's face," Tottenham says. "It's boiled down to one catchall superlative that's completely meaningless."
I am all for linguistic flexibility and creative oral latitude, but MAN OH MAN can you be a bigger Grinch? Hating people who use and believe in the word awesome is like hating puppies for tugging on each other's ears. Nerdfighteria's DFTBA mantra is the precise opposite of a cliché, and the precise example of people loving language and creativity and intelligence to BE BETTER. Or, as Tottenham would hate to hear it, more awesome.

This guy is a bookseller. I don't even. I hope he learns to spend more of his time enjoying things.

There ends my wind of negativity. I just didn't like seeing 2012 get off to such a cynical start. Because 2012 is going to be a year of AWESOME. STORIES. And optimism.

You know how I know? Because today, right after being bombarded by cases the second and the third, I opened a birthday package from a dear college friend, and found THIS:

Yes, that IS Minnesota running at you with HUGS.

So. 2012. Be awesome. Tell stories. Hug people. Be optimistic.


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