Neil Postman & Steve Powers – How to Watch TV News

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Neil Postman, as a philosopher, is deceptively simple. His writing is so easy that by this point it took me seconds to read a page. McLuhan’s name also appear, so it’s obvious he’s not providing new paradigms of thought. He continues McLuhan’s critical examination of technology, not taking it for granted by asking what it means. If the medium is the message, then this is book expands on news as a medium.

Before I talk about this book, I must make the theory clear. When McLuhan uses it, he means any kind of technology. For him, the newspaper and the text are two different medias. Postman takes a saner, more intiuiative approach to his theory and uses the tradition of medium as a tool for transmitting content. He examines what kind of content works better with medium according to its traits. Although it’s a different modus operandi of analysis, it’s still an extremely useful one. Actually, it’s necessary for us to understand any kind of communication.

Postman and Powers talk a lot about the importance of advertising. No one should be surprised by this. Ads are everywhere. Just go outside. An activity as innocent as waiting for the bus will involve advertising, in the station and on the bus itself. The chapters about media-as-business don’t reveal too much since, in my experience, people already perceive the TV networks as a business anyway.

The interesting and important parts are when the authors discuss what news is. It’s the type of discussion we don’t have enough. When you criticize the news, or TV, for being stupid people will reply with, ‘oh, it’s business, of course they will do what makes money’. Living in a strictly Neoliberal mindset, this makes sense. Adopting a less dogmatic mindset means asking yourself what kind of product you’re consuming. Without asking yourself this, you can’t tell the difference between a snack and a meal.

It’s this crucial distinction that makes all the figures about adverts alarming. News isn’t exactly entertainment. Things that happen in it are supposed to real. News show stand in contrast to other shows in that they’re meant to provide information. That’s why you’re angrier when Trump says ‘grab them by the pussy’ then when the Joker abuses Harley Quinn. Clearly, news are a different product than other shows, like RealiTV or cartoons.

Since news deliver information, the authors always view news by that prism. If these parts seem worrying, it’s only because they force you to ask whether you’re actually learning anything by the news. Their examination of the visual image is fantastic. It’s not an attack on the image itself. Rather, they examine what kind of information an image delivers, and what ideas work better in images.

News aren’t documentaries (A subject they sadly didn’t touch). News consists of incomplete stories framed as complete with pictures. Yet the story is so much more than a picture. A picture isn’t actually worth a thousand words since these words can contradict each other. They also point out how images express more than tell, show something concrete but don’t include context. It’s not that images are bad, but news information demands context, order, and meaning. Images aren’t enough to deliver those.

The print media also contains pictures, but then they analyze its structure. It’s another thing that’s easy to miss. The newspaper is a mosaic of images, where there is less hierarchy and more control for the reader. Although the editor decides which items will be on the paper and how much they will stick out, they can’t control the order of reading. Choosing to watch one story before the other in TV news is quite hard work. Why put all this effort into rewinding and fast-forwarding?

It’s sad that the authors didn’t emphasis the viewers’ ability to be selective on the media they consume. Although they’re not totally deterministic, Powers’ final conclusion, when discussing new technology leans towards gatekeeping. What he misses is that gatekeepers won’t necessarily care or know the well-being of the viewer. A gatekeeper by definition puts less power in the viewer’s hand. The power of selection is what we need to teach.

Some optimistic researchers will say we’re all naturally selective. I don’t think so, and the high amount of TV watching and viral content is more evidence of that. Selectivity means people will have a guideline of their own that makes them choose the content. They will not scroll the popular YouTube videos to see what’s happening, but rather search for specific topics. The internet actually does increase selectivity, mostly because you have to with all this information.

What they miss about information glut is that it demands being selective, unlike the TV. The TV, as a medium, is a regression in terms of intelligence and ability to convey information. Postman keeps proving this here. The authors missed that technology changes and can amplify parts of ourselves. Their pessimism misses the internet’s nature of information glut which forces people to be selective in some way. That said, selectivity demands critical thinking and that demands a lot of effort and our education system don’t really support it.

An interesting chapter focuses on the televising of trials. It’s one of the highlights, since it illustrates more clearly than any chapter how TV works. When a trial is televised, everyone knows that one person is tried. We’re judges by nature, and by putting someone on TV you put the person in front of millions of judges. Beyond that, the nature of summary of TV means our judgment will be quicker and less informed. Many of us will not even know what the final decision was. We’ll know someone’s been tried, assume he’s guilty or not and move on.

I agree with the authors that TV should stay out of court. They spread disinformation, not information. A person witnessing a trial is seeing it as it is, all the information with no edited highlights. On the news, you can’t show the whole trial but have to edit the highlights.

This book is directly related to Amusing Ourselves to Death. That book laid down the nature of TV and Postman’s demand for a boundary between information and entertainment. It is a discussion for a different book, but keep in mind these are some of the assumptions Postman and Powers bring. Information and entertainment must not go together. They don’t view TV as bad in and of itself, at least not in this book but merely as horrible at providing information. Although they expose their bias of technological pessimism a little later, they still lean towards being critical instead of dogmatic. After all, they provide some tools of analyzing language and these tools can be used against them. The point of the book is anyway not to make you agree with Postman so much as provide you with tools to be more critical, more on-guard.

It’s a good book on communication and media studies. It should be read by everyone since everyone is affected by the news. That said, it’s on a small scale. It doesn’t provide a theory but apply it. We need such books since sometimes theories can exist so much time in the abstract they lose any foundation in reality. Anyone expecting a series of revelation might be disappointed that this is not as ambitious as Amusing Ourselves to Death. It does provide a nice extension of the argument and is more accessible to layman, since it’s more of a toolbox than a theory. Postman’s books do sell, but they should sell more. Here is a philosopher who deals directly with life, cares deeply for being human and isn’t hard to understand at all.

3.5 fake news reports out of 5

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Thomas Ligotti – Grimscribe

 

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Note that I read this collection immediately after Songs of a Dead Dreamer since they were bundled together. It’s possible that many of the negatives come from reading 440 big pages of Ligotti prose. Then again, I survived a longer book with prose more purple and the result was a novel so fantastic, I think it’s required reading for anyone who wants to understand existence and other big ideas.

Ligotti has an odd problem with prose. Generally authors who rely on prose to deliver good fiction do it because their stories are short on content. They need an interesting frames for the story, since ordinary prose will just end up dull. Worse, some of them don’t have any events at all. DeLillo is a good example of this problem. His later work has fantastic prose that goes nowhere.

Ligotti has the potential to become a prose-centric writer, filling pages with beautiful, atmospheric words that only have aesthetic value. Yet the stories demand something else. This brand of horror is both unique and deep. Horror exists in the whole fabric of existence. Anywhere the characters look there is something frightening and hidden.

It’s still effective since it’s rooted in actual philosophy. Just like the previosu collection, these stories express the pessimistic being and what it’s like. What idiots call ‘clinical depression’ is actually seeing the darkness of the world. If you’ve been diagnosed as ‘depressed’, it’s possible your reality is closer to what Ligotti protrays here – unstable, hostile, not really caring about you and beyond your control. The idea of clinical depression is just a way for us to hide from these horrors and pretend they don’t exist.

Some will find this darkness suffocating, but he still has enough set-pieces to explore these darkness. While the running motif is hostile things unseen and generally everything being a mess, it comes in different forms. The last story breaks away from the protagonist-centric narrative and lets a collective ‘we’ to tell the story, creating a sense of suffocating horror that affects everyone. Other stories deal with abandoned places (“The Night School”) and others with forbidden information (“Nethescurial”). Diving the book into sections is a smart idea, since it shows the distinction between these stories. Since horror for Ligotti is everywhere, he has to show it in various places.

Where he fails is that the prose is too monotone. Very few stories deviate from the general mood of depression ‘n’ horror. “The Cocoons” is a short, punchy story where for a change Ligotti slips a joke or two. Taking his style to the direction of absurd and black humor, the result is quite great both as a joke and a narrative. If only he would let himself laugh a bit more. I share his pessimistic views, but nothing wrong with a few chuckles. Elsewhere “Nethescurial”‘s journal of research is a different structure and the closing stories uses the plurarl-first-person narrative that gives it a more engulfing mood.

Other than that, the prose is the same across the stories. It only changes whether the descriptions are more gothic or slightly more personal, but it’s not enough. Worse, this prose is very purple and beautiful. It becomes the center of the story and overpowers the set-pieces. That may be fine when you deal with ever-shifting realities that work like hallucinations, but without variety of tones we keep seeing the same hallucinations

I often forgot the name of the story I was reading and didn’t notice how many stories were behind me. Paragraphs blurred together into one big mess of beautiful, horrifying reality. At some point it become self-parodic not becuase it degenerated in quality but because my head was bludgeoned with this prose. You can only read sentences about how everything looked like human organs and that there are things in the shadows before you get tired. Separate the stories from the collection and I’m sure they’ll be great. Read them together and they get blurred like the reality inside them. I don’t want to think what “Last Feast” would read like if it were in the middle.

Such reliance on prose that dominates the book, suffocates everything and leaves nothing but itself means it has to be good. Else, the collection will fall apart. Thankfully it’s just as distinctive as the previous collection, if not better. In the previous collection the prose sometimes meandered to generic territory. It had a unique tone that overlayed standard prose. Here, Ligotti goes full-on dark psychedelia. Often it reads like creepy poetry and makes you wonder why he doesn’t try his hand at it, since you can craft great pieces out of here. Quotables lines are everywhere and anyone who needs lyrics for his depressed kind-of Gothic Country should find enough lines here.

In retrospect, there were many highlights and the stories are more sprawling and developed. “The Last Feast” is the best story here, mainly because its story involves more concrete material rather than hallucination-esque visions. It also dives headfirst into Ligotti’s antinatalism. “The Cocoons” offers a bit of much needed humor and is his personal attack on the profession of medicine. While it’s not an in-depth critique (unlike “The Last Feast”), its purpose was to be pulpy and punchy anyway. “The Dreaming in Nortown” is the scariest of the bunch. Most stories here feature some kind of power balance, even if the powerful side is just a supernatural force. In that story there is really no order, just following an insane man in his trip through town that eventually leads nowhere.

It’s still an excellent collection and anyone who understands horror must read this. Someday I’ll re-read it without Songs being fresh in my mind and maybe the highlights, the little details and something deeper will rise. Ligotti remains a fantastic prose stylist who understands his genre and has a unique voice. Even at his worst there is something to learn here.

3.5 shadows out of 5

Jennifer Brown – Hate List

תוצאת תמונה עבור ‪jennifer brown hate list‬‏

Whenever the subject of school shooting rears its head, someone has to point out that it’s a topic for overly-privileged kids. The mere act of talking about privilege in this context is a display of a lack of empathy, not a clever critique of society. It also misses the point, and why school shooting became so iconic. To understand that you have to understand what a terror attack is.

A terror attack isn’t one where people simply get hurt. Killing isn’t even the main objective. Terror is communicative violence, its purpose is to attack an icon and make everyone connect that icon to the event. Notice that the most famous terror attacks are always connected to a major place. The twin towers aren’t just big, but in an iconic place in an iconic city. The purpose was to make us always fear whenever we’re near that ground, and many will be near that ground since it’s so iconic. Terror attacks are meant to devastate us, to cause emotional damage far beyond the initial event.

Jennifer Brown generally takes the well-worn narrative of the school shooting, that of a bullied kid having his revenge on the world. Consciously or unconsciously though, she’s aware of the meaning of a school shooting, its similarity to a terror attack. Her book isn’t so much about bullying but about the devastating effect of a tragedy.

Although written in the typical form of a Young Adult novel – minimalist, first-person, a whole lot of reflection and emotional confession – the book tries to break outside its main character’s head. In the end of the novel Brown wrote this was Valerie’s story, and the structure may fit this but the content doesn’t. She’s a character as much as she is a window for us to witness the effect of tragedy on people.

Thankfully, Brown tries to grasp the complexity and psychology in the fallout of tragedy. Everyone reacts differently. Some stick to their old ways. Others radically change it. Some are angry, others become forgiving because what’s the point? Tragedy doesn’t make us into angelic beings. You actually can’t predict what tragedy will make of us.

Brown doesn’t manage to capture it with enough complexity to have impact. Only in the end there is a truly profound moment, one where the fragility of being human is captured. A short inscription on the grave of the shooter gets it. His grave is pushed aside with a small epitaph because he is the killer after all, but the killer had a mom who loved him after all. It echoes Susan Klebold’s article, or any interview with a parent of a killer. Victims had families who will never be the same again, but the killer also had a family who loved him.

A good chunk of the book is about this, about carrying on knowing the person you loved is a killer. I wish Brown would’ve delved into this dilemma more deeply, but then again this is extremely difficult. The highlights are the moments where Valerie is allowed to reminisce about the good times, and where she’s trying to connect what she knew of Nick to the violence. In these moments, despite the lack of character development, she finds some emotional punch.

Like many a Young Adult novelists, Brown’s characters are driven by emotion, not a psyche that’s unique to them. She has enough empathy that her characters react in various ways. Even the assholes who don’t change, who become more asshole-ish still come off as human being. Their point of view is there in front of us. Sure, it sucks for Valerie, but it also sucks for the father. His character is the most interesting since he’s supposed to be the least sympathetic – the father who abandons his family for a younger woman. His behavior never goes against this archetype, but in subtle moments we’re allowed to understand him and why he’d go after someone younger.

The portrayal is complex because of the variety of reactions. The problem is these are just reactions floating around, not tied to anything. Those few who get developed don’t end up as anything interesting. Nick is a typical sexy outcast – thin, listens to Rock music and can quote Shakespear. Bullying in this novel isn’t quite convincing, since Nick too often plays like a sexy mysterious guy. It’s not overdone, but nothing about him is especially weird. Bullies seek the weirdo, the one who isn’t flamboyent, doesn’t rebel and doesn’t have anything to offer but weirdness.

Likewise, it’s hard to think of what we learned about these characters. They’re human enough, but the complexity is too vague. It’s all outlines which are good enough, but I’m left here constructing their psyche. For once, minimalism betrayed the story. This story needed some inspiration from Dreisser, long slow moments that show who they are beyond the tragedy. Brown focuses so much on the effect of tragedy she creates people who have no lives outside of the tragedy. It’s only half the work.

It’s a shame, because otherwise Brown proves to be more capable than her peers. YA has a lot of talented writers, but they capture the spirit, the energy of youth without enough depth. These are enjoyable books, but mostly as research material before you write your own. Brown does a little better by widening her perspective, and so the novel is not just the story of Valerie but of everyone and how they deal with grief, how they cope with the tragedy. If only we could get a little deeper underneath these reactions, if only we could hear more than just their voices but let us walk in their shoes. I can’t tell if Brown doesn’t try or is just in incapable, but widening her reach is enough to give this novel extra emotional punch.

Hate List is not a total classic in the genre, but it deserves some respect in it. Many authors could learn from Brown’s wide reach, and the topic of school shooting gets a respectful treatment for once. Perhaps Brown is not just good enough to reach those heights, but she knows which mountains to climbs, what to do and so the novel has far more good in it than bad.

3 out of 5

Immanuel Kant – Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals

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Regardless of what you think of Kant’s philosophy, his ideas, how much sense they make and how useful they are – you have to respect him. The man tried to dig ridiculously deep into human thought. His is the drill that pierced philosophy. The difficulty in understanding Kant is not in his writing. The writing is fairly analytic and linear. What’s difficult is the distance Kant takes from human thought.

Human thought is built by layers upon layers. Spread all your ethical laws. Notice how you’ll find a hierachy between them. One law is derived from another. A classic example is that of rape. It’s derived from the law of bodily autonomy, of not forcing people to do things against their will. In turn, this is derived from the law of freedom of action. That one is derived from the law of not causing suffering, since we assume here that violating freedom causes suffering.

Now, this is an off-the-cuff example that doesn’t require deep thinking. It’s popular enough to make my point clear about these layers. Kant isn’t satisfied in stopping where I did. He goes as high as he can, he tries to understand the bare skeleton of what moral thinking is.

Kant goes so high that he doesn’t even talk about humans anymore. He’s obsessed with reason. In his world, only reason and the ways of thought he exists. When he talks about universal ethics, they exist way before Man himself exists. Although he separates the natural world (what we experience) and what is really there (which we can’t access), his dissection of reason is like a mathematicians’ dissection of the rules of nature. He creates a logic that everything is subject to. Only Kant deals with words, with terms that have loaded and not definite meanings. The task is automatically more difficult.

Which is why it’s so impressive. Once you understand how Kant functions, it’s easier to read him. The Categorical Imperative becomes more than mere ‘do what you want others to do’. That rule seems simple and intuitive but Kant removes the subjectivity from it. You can use that rule to justify theft. If you don’t believe in public property, you can expect others to steal and not feel guilty about stealing. What Kant does is ask whether a behavior like this can actually exists. If everyone steals, then we don’t have anything to steal since everything’s stolen. When I respect someone’s property rights and he respects mine, society doesn’t fall apart.

The main issue with Kant’s idea is exactly how detached it is from human experience. In the end, the moral behavior has to come down to the World of Appearances. Once it does, it no longer exists in isolation. There are results. If a moral behavior in an individual instead happens to lead to results which give power to immoral people than how good is it? The problem with pure reason is that it tries to isolate things with its strict laws, but that doesn’t actually happen.

As an attempt to set a groundwork for discussing morality, this part is a bit of a let down. He moves too forward, and although the Categorical Imperative remains in the World of Reason, it naturally leads to the World of Appearances and that’s where we’ll test it.

The better part, however, are when Kant discusses what exactly is moral. The Categorical Imperative becomes convincing once Kant defines what morality actually is compared to other things. His writings about free will feel as though he shuts down the whole discussion by solving the problem. Morality needs freedom. Rationality demands freedom. We cannot prove freedom exists because our notions of ‘proving’ relate mostly to the World of Appearances. However, once we think that freedom doesn’t exist we can no longer think morally or rationally since we give in to natural impulses. Do you do this? Does anyone live only by natural impulses? Even if freedom doesn’t exist, we have to act and think as if we’re free.

His definition of morality as fairly convincing – it is goodness, plain and simple. At first it seems overly simplistic, but it actually makes sense. By ‘goodness’, he means thinking beyond our natural impulses. Here you can see how Kant spent too much time thinking and not enough doing. This idea is understandable, but he has to connect it to the World of Apperances. Intelligence and morality may exist in the World As Itself which is important because it’s the basis for the World of Appearances, but the World of Appearances is what we actually experience. So if I act morally, the results were bad (in various ways), does it matter if I were moral?

The only blind side to Kant’s case is that he never proves that reason is so awesome that it improves reality (or the World of Appearances). All the love he has for reason is convincing that it’s important, but seeing that reason in action would be the final proof. The clearest benefit from Kant’s way of thinking is how critical he is, how willing he is to vivisect ways of thought so it feels more like ‘reason’ and ‘morality’ are beasts he analyzes using microscopes and scalpels.

At worst, the book lives up to its title. Since Kant goes so deep in his definitions and dissection, it does come off like the starting point for moral thinking. He separates morality from other ways of thought. He separates other needs and the free will and the moral action. Only he never puts them back together, but you can start forming your own Theory of Ethics using this. Later, McLuhan would criticize the Typographic Man for their linear, fragmented thinking. Kant is an excellent example of this fault. Everything is split up to tiny little pieces, which is useful to understanding them. If only Kant went the extra mile to connect these piece – he was sure aware that he should, but I guess we needed new technology to help us realize the world is happening all at once.

Keep in mind this review was written by someone who just started his voyage on the seas of Philosophy. At the time of writing this, I haven’t taken any courses and this book was difficult to read, almost incomprehensible at times. The final section especially felt like a great mental exercises going nowhere. Still, as a place to start it’s great. It lays down the most important question and is fairly accessible, despite how huge the ideas are in here.

4 morals out of 5 metaphysics

Brandon Sanderson – Mistborn: The Hero of Ages

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Sanderson’s books are puzzling. Take their surface, their visual ideas and the overall story and you’re left with a rollicking adventure that occasionally goes deep. Add his stilted, unoriginal prose and method of solving conflicts and you’re left with a generic Fantasy book that doesn’t insult the reader. After reading his essays and his view on the genre I’ve come to the conclusion he’s an awful writer who stumbled upon some great ideas.

The problem with Sanderson isn’t the story itself, but his approach to storytelling. He views his stories as a mechanical process, with the purpose of everything is get to the end. Characters, magic and objects have meaning which is determined only by how much they can solve conflict.

If we’re talking reality, this view can make sense. Life is full of conflicts and we need tools to solve it. Literature and Philosophy can be such tools. The difference is in the nature of conflicts in real life, and conflicts in fictional world. The conflict in real life is imposed on us. By that, I mean we don’t fully control it. We can instigate, but never design it from scratch. I can go out and start a fight with someone I don’t like, but I don’t control all the elements – our personal histories, which influence the conflict, are out of our control. The other person’s reactions and choices are also out of my control.

Fictional conflicts are the opposites. You build them from scratch. This is something many people forget when they talk about stories. Authors fully control their work. Authors can – and should – impose laws on their work, but even those laws are something the authors can control. Creating a problem just so you could solve it is like the brilliant Useless Machine. It’s a contraption that you turn on so it would turns itself off. If the purpose of everything in your story is that you’d solve the conflict, why create the conflict in the first place?

Sanderson’s parts fit nicely, but I see nothing admirable about that. Complexity doesn’t equal depth, and depth is what matters in fiction. Compexity can be engaging in activities that are thinking for thinking’s sake, but Chess also involves human interaction and a real conflict whose elements you don’t fully control. Reading the Mistborn novels is like playing Chess against yourself, only with a fancier dressing.

It was so disappointing when Sanderson took an important symbol and turned it into the final plot coupon. Sazed’s story is absorbing. It is the existensial crisis made physical, questioning what the hyper-intellectual who only researches, instead of providing answers and doing things, will do when the world is ending. The idea is sometimes explored, but Sazed mostly stares off into space and ruminates. By the time he takes the center stage, he realizes all his knowledge is the last screw to seal the Bad Ending’s coffin.

Too many scenes are about doing Allomantic stunts. Sanderson writes them like they’re a blow-by-blow account of a role-playing game. Even in those role-playing games, they are the most boring parts. No one cares about Fallout‘s battle systems. Planescape: Torment is a towering achievement because of the writing. These games can employ a battle system, because the person experiencing the art actually gets to use them.

Fantasy authors often forget that the position of the reader isn’t like the writer’s. The author may feel like he’s discovering a new land when writing. For the reader, it’s all laid out, no exploration of thought needed but just an info dump. The author may feel like he’s using a complex system of game rules to solve conflicts, but the reader only gets to observe it. The reader doesn’t actually use these rules. Imagine if a sports caster told you exactly how the basketball player’s legs work.

All these details in those big fights don’t matter. They don’t affect anything. Remove them, and the battle will be slightly shorter. In general, battles don’t work in literature. Violence is visual and immediate, something that’s hard to replicate in the relatively calm activitiy of reading. It’s also swift, so exact descriptions of it come off as silly. People don’t experience violence like Sanderson writes about it. It’s always over before we know what happened. He never once tries to capture the thrill of violence.

The story is more focused this time around. Stalling, the defining feature of the second book, is gone. Sanderson also deserves credit for his ability to structure stories. He never gets lost, never rambles too much or digress. He understands epicness doesn’t have to come from how many miles your characters walk, but the scope of the conflict. So making his story about stopping the end of the world is a good idea, and there is an energy in the final scenes, the emotionally appealing concept of the world torn between creation and destruction.

I want to hear Sanderson tells such a story. He can tell it without losing track, but when it’s covered in dull prose I lose hope. Many a pointless sentence fill the book. Inner thoughts drown the books in obvious or unnecessary details. I truly don’t understand why authors do this so much. I sometimes edit out of kindness prose of young writers, and they do it all the time. Are they afraid that nobody will understand? So long as you don’t write like Hegel, we can understand you just fine.

I do give him credit for not digressing too much. Scenes do gel together for a coherent story. One arc does feel like it’s separated from the main story, but Sanderson tells it like it’s self-contained, with its own conflict and resolutions. It doesn’t exist just to add details, but as an actual story. His descriptions are often to the point.

His exploration of themes is particularly bad. He wants to say something, and his fairly sparse story means ideas emerge clearly. For all the talk of worldbuilding, there aren’t too many details to keep up with. When the ideas emerge though, they’re just there. Sanderson does nothing with them. The secondary arc is about the evils of revolution, but all it has is a bunch of extremists using the government for their own selfish needs. There is no understanding or insight or sympathy towards them. It doesn’t reveal anything about this archetype, but perpetuates an empty pattern. The final antagonist also stands for nothing but death’n’destruction. It’s fun enough in a simple story, but Sanderson aims higher – a complex machine which has no reason to exist but to turn itself off.

Occasionally, it’s fun and it concludes. Mostly, it’s a Useless Machine, but not as amusing and not as offensive as George R. R. Martin. I understand some people dig epic fantasy, but this is 700 pages. Dunsany wrote a brilliant novel with only 230 pages, and reading it three times will keep revealing new things and is a better usage of my time.

2 heroes out of 5 ages

Lord Dunsany – The King of Elfland’s Daughter

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Dunsany makes it seem so easy. When people think of fantasy, they think of bricks full of descriptions and histories of non-existent worlds. I hear often how people don’t read fantasy because they don’t want a life commitment, because it’s more like studying the history of something rather than actual stories. If Robert Jordan and George R. R. Martin are anything to go by, they have point.

What’s bizarre is why these type of literature is so popular and so often written. In 1924 Dunsany wrote a simple novel. In terms of difficulty, the only thing difficult about it is that sentences can be long and the language is slightly archaic. Compared to more modern fiction though, the prose flows more smoothly. The story is about a person who seeks out a magical bride and gets astonished by the Huge World Outside. Wikipedia sums up the story in one paragraph and it’s okay. Why didn’t more authors replicate this?

That’s because artists don’t just try to sell a product. They sell importance. Importance in art is important. Rappers keep those crappy Boom Bap beats because it’s important and real, and so people who hate music will keep listening to them. Tolkien’s overlong saga was important, and so every Fantasy author wants to be seen as important and pile on the words. Writing a book like Dunsany’s may be easier, but it doesn’t look as important. Too bad that importance has little to do with musical quality. Manic Street Preachers aren’t as famous as David Bowie, but “Stay Beautiful” is better than anything on Ziggy Stardust.

Writing and storytelling devices serve the themes, not the opposite. Dunsany writes simply because that’s the best way to express his ideas. This novel isn’t fantasy just because the world is invented. ‘Fantasy’ is the theme of this novel. For a generation that explored all physical frontiers, it’s quaint but the sense of wonder Dunsany explores can apply to anything life.

The King of Elfland’s Daughter is about seeing something so majestic, so beautiful that we become obsessed. It’s something that we also can never capture. We will continue searching for it and never find it. It’s not just Elfland. Alveric gets party members, each with his own obsession. We’re all mad when the right thing strikes us. No one is exempt from this. Even the people of Elfland, once they see Earth become obsessed with it. Everything is a place of wonder if you look at it from a distance. The constant usage of the phrase “Fields we know” emphasizes this. These fields look ordinary to us only because we know them, and the narrator has our point of view. For Lirazel, Earth is just as wondrous.

The price of such beauty is no satisfaction. You’re either yearning for it, or don’t fit in. Alveric constantly searches. When Lirazel can be in Earth, which is wondrous for her, she can’t find her place and never feels at home. Man is torn by his lust for wonder and his need for a stable home. Notice how Alveric carries a tent on his journey – even while traveling he needs something resembling a home.

Some do try to settle down. Another way to react to these wonders is fear. Alveric’s party have their obsession, but theirs isn’t as concrete as Elfland. When they see what real wonder looks like, they want to back away to their normal lives. Alveric himself despairs a little – that’s another price of seeing wonder. Back in the village we see that settling down doesn’t work. If we don’t go seeking the world, then it’ll just finds its way to us. You can be obsessed with it on your territory or not, but you’ll react to it. Even denying it is a reaction.

All these paragraphs of analysis – and I’m sure others can go something more in-depth – for such a simple book. That’s because Dunsany’s theme come before style and story. There are no digressions, no meaningless paragraphs of exposition. A chapter involving a man with a dark coat may at first seem like a digression, but even without the revelation it’s an exploration of Dunsany’s idea. In that chapter, magical creatures themselves aren’t infallible. They can get obsessed with something and follow it to things unknown.

Dunsany’s world isn’t physical, but is aware of ‘idea space’. His descriptions are always what it feels like, rather than what actually is. Worlds in fiction never exist. Telling me how tall a spire is, doesn’t actually tell me anything. So what? When Dunsany describes palace as “can only be told of in song”, it creates an image more mythic than any other physical description. If Dunsany’s book is difficult, it’s because of how expressive his language is. Nothing is described in direct physical traits, but every description is dripping with expression and poetics. Repetition never dulls the power of these words, because “fields we know” says more about them than anything else could.

He’s one of the few authors who can go off on long descriptions. Sometimes, his descriptions drip with so much wonder and awe that it speaks for itself. He describes flowers, in the same sentence, both as ‘unwithering’ and that time never touches them. Such repetition is redundant, but in the contexts it makes sense. Elfland is so wonderous that you have to traits in it using different ways, and you still wouldn’t capture it.

The result of such expressive and non-physical language is that Elfland and the Fields We Know feel actually feel real. We don’t experience the world in numbers. The Earth may move around the sun quite fast, but we don’t feel this speed. Fiction is never about displaying facts but about the human condition, since it is, after all, products of human thought. By tapping into how things feel like rather than how they actually are, Dunsany writes like how human beings experience the world.

The book’s only flaw, which must be deliberate, is that its characters can be fairly shallow. They’re clear archetypes, symbols that exist to explore ideas rather than complex human beings. It doesn’t detract too much, since the story is simple and demands such simple characters. Still, it would be nice if Dunsany dedicated a few more paragraphs to how his characters experience the world in their unique ways. He shows us their obsessions, but not how they deal with other things in the world. The book may explore its main topic quite well, but its lack of psychology and other subjects makes its vision too narrow. Great works of fiction have their main topics, but they also tend to dispense some unrelated views. Dunsany already shows great skill, so it makes you wonder what else he has to say.

The small flaws prevent this from being an all-time great book, but everything else makes this a cornerstone of the Fantasy genre. This is the book we should namedrop constantly when we discuss Fantastical fiction. Dunsany’s prose isn’t just beautiful, but his method of ‘worldbuilding’ is more engrossing and meaningful than other famous authors. Beyond the symbolic layer, it’s also a cute romance about two lovers who can’t let the kind-of-dimensional distance between their worlds separate them. Both as a love story and an exploration of human obsession, it’s a great book.

4.5 fields we know out of 5

Dave Cullen – Columbine

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You can look at the story of Columbine and think it’s just a bunch of whiny, privileged white males. That’s okay. People write off people’s troubles in similar ways. As we know, black people are less intelligent and cultured, so who cares what’s going on in Africa?

The world is full of stories. People murder and cause terrorist attacks all the time and it’s not something I feel comfortable reading. The purpose of the storyteller is to extract the meaning out of it. This book is not just the recounting of the events in Columbine and what came after/before. It’s a gigantic argument why the story even matters in the first place. Cullen does an amazing job. No scene is without purpose. No scene exists only to spout details. Each detail has insight into another topic. Like the best non-fiction, Columbine is more about other subjects than its title.

Cullen dispels two big, contrasting myths. There’s the ‘psycho villain’ myth, and the ‘revenge of the nerds’ myth. The truth is actually somewhere in between, or at least split between the killers. The truth was, Columbine Massacre was instigated by a single person.

The writings about psychopathy here are integral. Psychopathy was the cause of the massacre, and also what people miss. People believe in Just World and want to believe that moral people are also good social presence. If someone’s charismatic and hot, then he cannot be bad. However, the fat dude who sends you a message on Facebook is a creep. Such a world is ordered, easy to navigate and we know what to fear.

Psychopaths blow it apart. The true danger isn’t the socially inept person. He’s too timid and his doors are blocked. In order for him to cause social crime, he first needs to become a part of society. Psychopaths are the most desirable people. They’re aces in imitating social cues and personalities but they have no good intentions. They don’t even have empathy.

In truth, there’s nothing like ‘what a killer/rapist/thief’ look like. People who want to deliberately harm – and psychopaths do – need to conceal themselves. How else can a rapist do his crime, if he can’t convince his victim to trust them in an isolated setting? Eric Harris was successful. Women loved him. When he apologized, everyone was convinced. He knew exactly how to hint about the killing to see who’s on board. People couldn’t believe Eric would do it because of his social skills, but his high social skills are directly related to his lack of empathy which pushed him to massacre. It’s a bizarre thing. The most dangerous people are designed to look benign.

What’s ironic is during all the time leading to Columbine, it was Dylan who got the most flak. Dylan was only in it to kill himself. The journals are up online if you want to read it. Dylan was soaked in self-loathing. His character was truly tragic. While I’m not excusing what Dylan did, he’s perhaps just as a victim as the others. He barely even shoot during the massacre. His depressive state and feelings of powerlessness made him an easy target for a psychopath needing an accomplice. Harris provided him a way out. Psychopaths are hard to stop, but what if someone reached out to Dylan before?

This situation reveals something dark about our society. It’s caused by our overall preference for socially skilled people over everything. Yes, this would happen again. In the end, what we want are people who can act like Harris. We want charismatic people who can lead, who look good and can tell jokes. Dylan may have been almost innocent, but socially he’s useless. What’s there to do with a depressive suicidal? Speaking from an evolutionary standpoint, we will always support Harris over Dylan. Harris can navigate social situations gracefully, and for a social animal nothing is more important.

Aside from the killer’s psych, the book reveals the many shades of tragedies with multiple victims. Not everyone comes out the same. The stories of survivors, or the bereaved, are vastly different. Cullen tells the story they deserve with empathy. After such a tragedy, you need a spotlight on your unique position. No matter how many suffered with you, your misery is still real. Lumping it up with everyone else is insulting.

It’s also a story of media, and how the way we report events affect their influence. For those who are interested in media studies, this is essential. The parts about the eyewitnesses’ unreliability are fantastic. Such tragic stories have a stronger demand for precise details. These situations, by their nature, confuse us and we need every information we can have to understand them. The intensity of these situation also leads to confused memory. It’s almost funny how people thought there are multiple killers. One person saw Dylan & Eric with trenchcoats. Then they took off and a different person saw them.

An important arc is the story of Cassie, the supposed martyr. Initially it was reported she claimed to believe in God right before being shot. In reality this exchanged happened with a different student who survived. Yet people were quick to believe Cassie’s story and stuck to it even once the truth goes out. It goes to show you what kind of moral responsbility the media has. The reporting of this story affected lives. A survivor in trauma who needed her story told has been pushed aside while everyone lives in a lie.

I don’t think the conclusion of this book was that tragedy was inevitble, that Eric and Dylan were pure evil and we’re all victims. What makes the book so dark is that it shows how badly we function when tragedy strikes. Aside from the aforementioned psychopathy, there’s a coverup, ganging up on parents without knowing why and a parent who becomes a ranting anti-abortion activists. If anything, it’s almost fatalist. What could we do? We’re only human. Why disclose that we could’ve prevented it, and put us in harm’s way?

Cullen’s prose is sometimes too fiction-esque. Writing a non-fiction book like a fiction one, with dialogue boxes makes it look silly. The author wasn’t there, and if he were he could only have this exactness if he recorded it. I prefer writing as summary, since that’s the only thing you can do. Cullen’s prose is also precise enough to let it slide. He’s fantastic in choosing the right details. Physical descriptions never enter. Instead, it’s all about the people and what they did. I know a lot of people who say they can’t read a book without understanding the physical reality of it. Here, Cullen wrote a powerful story by only describing the people in it.

Some will write this off and say it’s just two white privileged white kids. Perhaps, but perhaps underneath every school shooting or underneath every crime rests a story like this. The difference is, we had a lot of cameras on the scene. Columbine is important because of what it tells us about us – that, yes, this will happen again. As social animals, we’ll always take Eric Harris above others. We’ll tell stories that make us feel good – our son is a martyr, they were just evil villains, they were just bullied kids. Cullen does have answers, they’re just incredibly pessimistic.

4 out of 5