On Hospitality. A Manifesto.


Do not expect reciprocity. Open your home in an attitude of non-expectation. Try not to hope.

This state is impossible for human beings. Recognize this impossibility and forgive yourself for your desire.

Yet continue to strive. Turn yourself inside out as much as you can. Strain toward the perfection of absolute giving as a horizon, an asymptote.

Things you could give away that you might not have thought of: your couch. The suit you were married in. Extra pens you have lying around. Your undivided attention. A kidney.

But be wary of potlatch and all forms of competition. If a friend doesn’t want your kidney then don’t embarrass him by pressing.

Recognize that there are limits to the concept of hospitality, which is based on the notion that my home is separate from yours. Hospitality is a modern invention and the bailiwick of the middle class; the mansions of the nobility were open by fiat to the state, to soldiers, to ghosts, to the gentle nosiness of Mr and Mrs Gardiner and the dreamy rapacity of Elizabeth Bennett. Only those who are not forced to billet soldiers or admit vampires can be said to extend hospitality. Consider whether you think hospitality is enough.

Some examples of hospitality include: Everything Winnie-the-Pooh does. A bunch of episodes in The Odyssey. Lots of stuff from the Bible.

Some examples of non-hospitality: Polyphemus (don’t eat your guests, even if they were not invited). The Lotus-Eaters (allow your guests to leave when they want to). Circe (do not transform your guests into beasts). Odysseus and the suitors (however, also a grey area). Come to think of it, The Odyssey is pretty ambivalent about hospitality.

Hospitality should be invisible. If you make a big deal about how generous you are and how open your home, you undermine the whole enterprise. One of the best things Miss Manners ever advised was what to do if your guest accidentally drinks the contents of her finger bowl: immediately pick up your own finger bowl and down it.

Yet do not hide your light under a bushel simply to make others comfortable. Fakery of any kind is counter to the spirit of hospitality.

When friends tell you that they can’t return your hospitality because your cooking is too delicious or the paintings on your walls are too beautiful and they feel ashamed, understand that they’re being ridiculous. Forgive them and love them for being ridiculous.

Invite them over again soon and serve them a terrine of pressed butterfly wings in rosewater aspic. Feed them by hand.

Let them doze off on the couch, then depart your house as quietly as you can.  Leave the keys on the front hall table. Take up residence in their tiny apartment and fall in love with their cruel cats and enjoy their tinned vegetables and stare at their framed movie posters until they move you to tears. Make a new furrow in their mattress. Forget your own name.

Sick Bed


Today I rise from it, or at least this is the plan.

I turn my head—not slowly or gingerly—to regard
the midden of balms and anodynes
that is my bedside table.

Their fundamental efficacy is in doubt,
but one must do something.
At the very least they compose a curious collage
suitable as a focal object of meditation.

I remember other bedside tables
covered with other bottles and tubes.
And my dread of the hand
coming to clear them away: the fuzzy
half-sucked lozenges stuck to screws of wax paper,
the stiff wads of Kleenex like strewn lotuses,
the Robitussin bottle with its encaustic of sticky drips.
A book of some kind,
a puzzle, a pen,
a stuffed animal with implacable eyes.

What they bore witness to:
the deep pleasure of the bed
and of the soreness of muscles not used much in days,
the langour of long shadowy afternoons spent staring down
ghosts in the corner of the chamber.

There comes a point when one’s head has swelled
nearly to the parameters of the room,
hair glued to the forehead with sweat,
the point when a cool hand, delicious,
wipes the hair away
and all there ever has been or ever will be
is this forehead and this hand.

But sentimentality has no permanent place
here anyhow.
The hand remains cool in its detritus-clearing
does not waver over its tasks
or the brisk plumpings and smoothings it has come here to do.

It is time to rise up!
The cruelty of all clarion calls
can be heard deep in the brassy command.
No one cares any longer about the ache or the damp hair
or the bottomless need to sink
into the hollow
of the mattress.

It seems as though all caring has come to an end,
forever, and the hand on the forehead is one’s own.
The stuffed animal is gone
but the ghosts are still here.

It is days before garbage pickup
and the Kleenex lotuses, swept into the kitchen bin,
will still be visible for a time
before they’re pulled under the surface
then wilt then wither in the airless dark.


Flow, Baby, Flow


The difference between these two strips fascinates me. I think we all know what it feels like to completely lose ourselves in absorbing work or play, to the point where time has no meaning and the need to eat, drink, and pee starts to seem like the greatest possible nuisance. (This is where the Skittles-and-Diet-Coke dinner comes in.) But what makes the difference between emerging from a three-day haze after a marathon writing or coding or animated-film-making session vs. cutting damp rainbow candy out of your hair after losing a whole weekend to Super Mario Brothers? The psychological concept of “flow,” which purports to explain these periods of intense mental absorption, doesn’t capture the distinction between Good and Evil flow, between a warm happy feeling plus a completed article on Jane Eyre and a horrifying 7,674-item browser history.

Here is where it would make sense for me to talk more about the theory of “flow.” Since I know that one of my chief tools of procrastination is internet research — I spent nearly two hours tracking down, downloading, and scanning those two Doonesbury strips — I’m going to just go ahead and paste part of the Wikipedia entry on flow rather than presenting a scholarly portfolio of peer-reviewed citations it would take me three days to compile: “In his seminal work, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, [Mihaly] Csíkszentmihályi outlines his theory that people are happiest when they are in a state of flow — a state of concentration or complete absorption … a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter…. The flow state is an optimal state of intrinsic motivation, where the person is fully immersed in what he is doing. This is a feeling everyone has at times, characterized by a feeling of great absorption, engagement, fulfillment, and skill — and during which temporal concerns (time, food, ego-self, etc.) are typically ignored.* *Csikszentmihalyi, M. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Row, 1990.” [1]

See: nothing about Evil flow. In my experience, Evil flow is equally characterized by a “feeling of great absorption [and] engagement” in which temporal concerns are ignored. But it is also characterized, later, by sickening regret, a feeling of lost time, intense shame, and intransigent mortality. Let me hasten to clarify: I don’t think that the difference between Evil flow and Good flow is about whether one is left with a product or merely be-Skittled hair at the end of the session. It is entirely possible to feel a warm happy glow after a day of something “non-productive” like playing tennis or reading a novel or baking a cake, just as it’s possible to feel the clammy hands of death at one’s throat after producing 3,000 words of lucid prose.

While it is true that the two categories often track onto one another — Good = Stuff; Evil = Waste — those equivalences are both the manifestation of superego and an epiphenomenon of capitalism. What interests me more is the phenomenological difference: surely something must be going on during Evil flow other than internalized self-loathing. I contend that the actual experience is different, not just the affective outcome. “Evil flow” isn’t enjoyable; it’s compulsive. One of its distinctions is self-recrimination, but I honestly think that has more to do with a sense of non-enjoyment than with non-“productivity.” It is sadistic, and emanates from the realm of the death drive rather than the realm of the pleasure principle — and as such, it is also characterized by self-destructive repetition. We are so often at odds with our own best interests.

My beloved life partner suggests that the distinction is one of value: we feel good after spending time on things we value and not so much when we don’t. I agree completely, but this leaves two central questions unanswered: why does “flow,” broadly conceived, even happen when we are doing things we do not value? Why do we lose track of time and our caloric intake when we’re absorbed in an empty, unrewarding activity just as much as when we’re in an “optimal state of intrinsic motivation”? But more importantly, what determines what we value to begin with? Perhaps flow, in both its “good” and “evil” forms, holds the key to answering this second question; maybe we should track the flow in order to find out what we value, instead of the other way around. “Our desires cut across one another, and in this confused existence it is rare for happiness to coincide with the desire that clamoured for it.” [2]

As with so many things, only psychoanalysis and literature really speak about this distinction. And, of course, Doonesbury.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mihaly_Csikszentmihalyi. (God, the writing on Wikipedia is abysmal. I elided the most egregious repetitions, but even so. Normally I advise students to stay away from the thesaurus, but I would prefer a misused “stipulation,” “contingency,” or “sovereignty” in place of one or two of those “state”s.)

[2] Marcel Proust, Within a Budding Grove.

Now, Levenger

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“Let me explain to you one of the key elements involved in the writing process.  Because it may seem outwardly that the pen and the paper and the chair play an important role.  But they’re all somewhat incidental to the actual using of the brain.”                                                                   — Jerry Seinfeld to George Costanza

Once again Jerry gets it right. The actual using of the brain can be hard and lonely, and those nurtured in the bosom of late capitalism are very good at avoiding the hard and the lonely through the contemplation — and even better, the acquisition — of material things. And those of us who have chosen lives requiring the regular production of writing in exchange for the means to procure material things have a particularly vexed relationship to the beautiful pens, elegant paper, and luxurious chairs that seem, according to the Levenger catalogue, so necessary to the endeavor.

In case you have never received a Levenger catalogue in your mailbox (perhaps you have been living off the grid, or have been incarcerated in a federal prison for the past 15 years), allow me to describe it: this cool, glossy quarterly hawks writing paraphernalia of all kinds, from fancy paperclips to six-hundred-dollar glass-front bookcases.  Fountain pens, leather book satchels, clip-on lamps: the full range of luxurious accoutrements for the discriminating reader is available in its pages.  It even boasts that most unassailable imprimatur of postmodernity, a subtitle: “Tools for Serious Readers.”  I think of it as “Props for Intractable Procrastinators.”

The Levenger catalogue falls into what we might call the Lifestyle Category of mail-order brochures.  Along with Hammacher Schlemmer and J. Peterman, Levenger seems to offer its perusers not just consumer products at inflated prices, but an entire self-image. [1]  Since Levenger caters to writers and readers, and as an English professor I have a pretty hefty investment in thinking of myself as both, I would seem an ideal target for this particular brand of hucksterism.  Yet I resist.  For some reason, the Levenger ethos disturbs me, even as I leaf guiltily through each new number the second it arrives.  I suspect that my discomfort springs directly from a deep, roiling pool of neurotic bugaboos regarding work, class, prestige, and autonomy.  You may think that this is a lot to read into a simple direct-marketing sales tool.  You would be wrong.

The underlying philosophy of the Levenger empire is complex and occasionally contradictory, and like all the world’s most sophisticated thought systems, richly repays close study.  It is best grasped in a numbered-outline format suitable for review during leisure moments in your home or car:

  1. If you cannot think of what to write, buy something. Expensive cherrywood objets facilitate — nay, enable — the creative process.  The ideal Levenger audience seems to consist of middle-aged former English majors who took a wrong turn somewhere, accidentally landed lucrative jobs in the financial sector, and now feel guilty about both their riches and their unfinished novels.  Judging by the snippets of prose visible on the thick, creamy pages of the handtooled leather journals for sale in the catalogue, these people face other obstacles as well:  “… and then we went into a small antiques shop to browse.  Just the type of place I would be sure to find the perfect gift for Candace.  Searching through the trash and treasures, I … [words obscured by corner of second handtooled leather journal stacked on top of first] a lovely music box that … picture frame.”  And there, tantalizingly, the entry stops.  Levenger Land is full of these little gems: “… and then the next evening, we all got together for sushi and a show.  It couldn’t have been a better night for it”; “… and then later on that same day, around dusk, he sees the bag on the front walk.  Curious, he opens it and you would not believe it, but there happened to be about 50 or more….”  There seems to be a lot of narrative suspense in the Levenger world (“and then…”), coupled with an obsessive need to record banal details of everyday life.  It’s a painful image, all of these memoirists manqués, filling up their expensive notebooks with the most snoozeworthy observations imaginable.  Yet such is the strange comfort of the Levenger philosophy: while these writers are unlikely to set the world afire with their prose, at least they will toil away surrounded by beautiful ottomans, brilliant pinpoint reading lamps, solid hardwood couchside tables, smooth-edged leather bookmarks and paperweights, and mysterious “caddies” of all kinds.
  2. There is an unnecessary object suitable for every unnecessary task. Flipping through the Levenger catalogue is a vertiginous exercise, wherein one becomes increasingly aware of all the desires one never knew one had.  A miniature gooseneck lamp just for my computer keyboard?  Eureka!  A three-hundred-dollar tilting bedside reading table?  Love it!  An all-in-one wallet and PDA holder?  Why, yes — this is the perfect solution to the organizational problem I never quite knew I had!  Granted, all catalogues depend on the fulfillment of arcane desires, but most of them cater to needs, or at least categories of needs, that the consumer is already aware of when she picks up the latest issue and starts leafing through it on the toilet.  I may not need another pair of L. L. Bean hunting boots right at this very moment, but I do, generally, need waterproof footwear.  The Levenger catalogue seems designed for people who want to want something new, and depend on the Levenger marketing people to tell them what that new thing might be.
    My most recent unnecessary-object obsession is something from the “Levenger Studios” called an Annotation Station.  It consists of a long weighted leather strip (“smooth suede underneath protects paper”) with slots for holding Post-It notes, flag markers, and a yellow highlighter.  This is the perfect gift for the dedicated marginaliaphile, someone who really wants to mark the hell out of his books (“How true!”).  Who are these people, one wonders?  Surely casual readers have no need to annotate their books so heavily.  Cheapskate intellectuals and impoverished students tend to take books they need to read out of the library — and are hardly likely to drop thirty bucks on a fussy doodad for which they would only be mocked by their peers.  Even more bizarre, however, is the imagined “lifestyle” of the perfect consumer of this item: “As your reading venue moves from desk to chair to bed during the day, you can bring this bookweight with you and have your marking tools together in one place….  The Annotation Station is the solution to ‘Oooh, I’d love to mark this passage… but I don’t feel like getting up.’”  From desk to chair to bed during the day?  I don’t feel like getting up?  The potential market for this item must be quite narrow indeed: brilliant, intellectually omnivorous consumptives with large inherited fortunes.  Perhaps Shelley could have given one to Keats for Boxing Day.
  3. Everything in the world can be, and should be, encased in leather. In addition to your standard briefcases, checkbooks, and journals, Levenger offers cowhide coverings for the following items that you never knew needed the protection and beauty of real leather: PDAs, legal pads, passports, travel alarm clocks, Post-It notes, magazines, notepads, index cards, tissue packets, miniature key-chain photos, measuring tapes, airport ID cards, three-ring binders, cell phones, cell earphones, digital camcorders, and seat cushions.  In addition, they offer leatherbound versions of the following classics: toiletry bags, pen and pencil cases, stationery boxes, desk sets, fountain pen hutches, photo albums, money clips, and something called a “self-cleaning eyeglass case.”  I am particularly fond of the leather laptop pad and cord organizer, which enables you to keep your notebook computer from slipping around on your desk (a perpetual problem for sea captains everywhere) and also eliminates annoying cord clutter at the back of your computer.

If it weren’t for the sober financier-type prose that appears on many of the memo pads and organizers featured in the catalogue (“Product Development Meeting”; “Sales Team Luncheon”; “Review Résumés”) — which coexists uncomfortably with the lucubrations of the memoirists — one might imagine that Levenger Land is populated by hordes of kinksters and fetishists.  Why else all the leather?  Of course, it’s likely that the cowhide obsession springs from a somewhat less exotic quirk: the American middle-brow horror of “unsightly” objects.  It’s a small step from macramé Kleenex-box covers and toilet-paper cozies to the “luxury feel” of “soft, full-grain Napa leather” entombing every single electronic gadget you own.  Heaven forefend anything look functional.

I am not a vegetarian or an animal-rights activist, but the Levenger catalogue gives me pause.  It seems unlikely to me, after perusing the myriad leather coverings on offer here, that there can possibly be enough cows dying peacefully of old age in the world to supply this apparently insatiable demand. [2] Indeed, according to the helpful article “Tanning Research Update” published by the USDA Agricultural Research Service, “cattle hides are the most valuable coproduct of the meat packing industry.”  Apparently, more than 35 million cowhides are produced in the U.S. each year, 60 percent of which are exported to other countries to the tune of one billion dollars; the remaining hides are tanned domestically and turned into four billion dollars worth of finished leather. [3] That’s a lot of cows.  The folks at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals are all over this, and have used similar statistics to attack the complacency of people exactly like me who think that buying leather goods is nowhere near as evil as draping oneself in the hides of fluffy little doe-eyed minks. [4] (There’s a reason that Cruella de Ville does not have any major endorsement contracts, while the Marlboro Man does.)

When I think about why, exactly, Bessie and Clarabell might be dying untimely deaths — because mid-level account executives feel they look more professional with their legal pads covered in animal skin — I feel a bit of guilt and a bit of remorse on behalf of humankind.  But mostly I just feel judgmental.  It’s one thing to imagine Elizabeth Bishop dashing off letters in a Notabilia Notebook with Leather Cover, and quite another to imagine “Hi Larry, Please call me to schedule a meeting with Jim and the marketing team” thus forever enshrined.

•   •   •

Of course the writer of these lines is guilty of the worst kind of snobbery: reverse.  (Pace Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story, who accuses Jimmy Stewart of being “the worst kind of snob, an in-tee-lyec-tual snob.”)  Who am I to begrudge the tassel-loafered, titanium-watched crowd the thrill of writing down their weekend pensées in a costly leather-covered tome?  Shouldn’t I, in fact, be encouraging this very behavior?  Shouldn’t I even feel a bit proud, of my profession and avocation, when I see evidence of a burgeoning interest in all things literary?  Whence, then, this deep and abiding resentment? I suspect it springs from the uncanny, and intensely uncomfortable, sense of recognition I feel whenever I leaf through the catalogue.  Of course I want these beautiful objects, and of course I cannot afford most of them — this goes without saying.  I am no different than anyone else who drools over a velvety smooth Majorca briefbag — with the possible exception that I get to feel a tinge of smug self-righteousness about the very fact that I cannot afford it.  (“Because I’ve dedicated myself to the life of the mind!”)  But the sense of recognition runs even deeper: I, too, often feel paralyzed by the difficulty of producing lucid and compelling English prose.  I, too, would rather fantasize about furnishing my study in cherry-veneer Danish bookcases than actually sit down and, you know, write.  I cringe when I read the dull scribblings on the pages of Levenger journals because I fear that my prose is equally deadly.  And worst of all, I live in constant fear that I may never produce any more of it at all.  Yeah, sure, I wrote a bunch of stuff in the past, but that could very well be it!

The Marxist philosopher and literary critic Walter Benjamin, in his unfinished masterwork about the shopping arcades of nineteenth-century Paris, grasped the strange confluence of writing, avoidance, shopping, and materialism embodied in the Levenger catalogue.  Over the course of 13 years, he compiled quotations, notes, and fragments describing the culture of modern industrial capitalism — under such disparate categories as fashion, literature, architecture, advertising, photography, prostitusion, and boredom — as refracted through the lens of the Parisian shopping mall. His writing methodology reflected his subject matter: the bric-a-brac of the shop window, where juxtaposition renders precious objects and junk indistinguishable, was mirrored by the bric-a-brac of the writer’s desk, where index cards with jottings about Baudelaire rub up against scraps of paper.

Benjamin insisted that the method of his project, which he termed “literary montage,” freed him from some of the most burdensome and difficult aspects of writing: “I needn’t say anything. Merely show. I shall purloin no valuables, appropriate no ingenious formulations. But the rags, the refuse — these I will not inventory but allow, in the only way possible, to come into their own: by making use of them.” Yet he also understood that this openness came at a price, that the unbounded and amorphous nature of his project also courted authorial anxiety, confusion, and regret:  “To great writers, finished works weigh lighter than those fragments on which they labor their entire lives.” While it may be going too far to say that Benjamin made an explicit connection between the actual physical fragments of his writing — evocative and beautiful yet risky and haunting — and the commodities on sale in the arcades — enchanted and precious yet reviled and abject — certainly the comparison is there for the making. What he describes, dissects, and dismisses he is also clearly deeply attracted to. One can almost imagine him fantasizing that a better pen and some smoother paper might lighten the “labor of his entire life.” [5]

Please bear with me here, for I’m about to discuss sabbaticals. I fully understand that it is the grossest ingratitude to utter even a whiff of complaint about uninterrupted chunks of research and writing time, and the gentle reader is free at this point to throw up her hands in disgust. Yet I found the experience of my one sabbatical intensely difficult (and I suspect many academics, freelance writers, and work-at-home folk would confess to the same ambivalence).  All of a sudden, I was struggling on a daily basis with what I had thought of as the most mundane exigencies of human existence: having a shower, getting dressed, making sure I exposed my pasty skin to a certain amount of rickets-preventing sunshine every day.  While I found it exhilarating to roll out of bed and head straight for the computer with fresh thoughts percolating in my head, there was also the horrifying possibility that I would accomplish absolutely nothing useful on any given day.  It’s one thing to remain unwashed and uncombed for twelve hours because you’re on a creative roll; it’s another thing to sit ungroomed in front of your computer all day and produce nothing worth keeping — or worse, do nothing but read E! Online.

I recently re-read my journal from graduate school (written in composition notebooks purchased at CVS), and was shocked to discover that apparently I have been dealing with this procrastination problem for some time.  “Resolutions,” reads one humiliating entry from my dissertation-writing year.  “1. Shower before coffee.  2. Dress before sitting down to write.”  It’s not that I didn’t produce anything, of course — I managed to finish the dissertation and get the Ph.D., and I still manage to crank out enough academic prose every year to remain respectable.  It’s that I haven’t gotten any better at the psychological aspects of the writing process: it’s still so bloody difficult.  And for some reason I don’t find it comforting to be reminded that others share this difficulty.  When my friends confess that on non-teaching days they often stay in their jammies “writing” until late afternoon, I don’t feel heartwarming recognition and fuzzy camaraderie.  I feel slightly shocked.  I want the inspiration of a fantasy role model: someone who writes effortlessly, fluently, clad perhaps in a fetching cinched-waist bouclé jacket and coordinating trousers, or at least a cashmere twinset.   I certainly don’t want to be confronted with evidence that there’s an entire consumer industry aimed at people who clearly have trouble sitting down to work, who fetishize the tools of scrivening and calligraphy at the expense of actually producing anything beautiful or interesting to read.  And that’s why I hate the Levenger catalogue.

But this is a fairly obvious insight.  Everyone knows how difficult, lonely, etc., the writing life is supposed to be: after all, the stock romantic image of the struggling poet always involves — in addition to a garret, a sundrenched cat, and a charmingly antiquated typewriter — a wastebasket artfully overflowing with crumpled-up pieces of paper.  No, I suspect that what really disturbs me about the Levenger catalogue is something deeper and even more squirm-inducing than the painful reminder that what I’ve chosen to do every day of my life can sometimes be kinda hard.  (After all, it’s not as hard as breaking rocks.)  Perhaps, I tremble to suggest, the Levenger Doctrine is perfectly cogent, valid, true, and correct — and this is why I hate it.  Perhaps the Levenger people, in some profound and inexplicable way, understand certain psychological and spiritual dimensions of the writing process better than I do.

I’m not talking about the uncanny suspicion I sometimes get, leafing through the catalogue, that the entire production is a parody and I a hoodwinked rube.  How else to explain the one-third-page entry for the (undoubtedly admirable) reference work Words that Make a Difference?  Just below the catalogue description of the book, which presents “1,238 of the language’s more elusive but compelling words,” there is a little buff-colored box with a blurb from Steve Leveen (a.k.a. Levenger) himself: “This book can be a secret weapon for lifelong learners who want to boost their vocabulary and gain the lifetime of benefits that come along with that.”  That come along with … that?  Perhaps you might want to dip into Words that Make a Difference every once in a while yourself, Steve.  Can this be real, or is it an elaborate joke?

Joke or no, it is not as snarky postmodern hipsters that I imagine the Levenger people commenting on litterae humaniores.  Their insights, I suspect, are more subtle and elusive.  In addition to the frustrated-genius, crumpled-paper model, another romantic version of the writer subsists, perhaps on a slightly more subterranean level, in the popular imagination.  This is the image of the logorrheic prodigy whose words flow practically unbidden, like bodily effusions, regardless of nefarious external attempts to silence them.  Anyone who writes for a living or avocation occasionally gets to experience magical little stretches of time when words flow copiously from the pen, and everything that flows is sheer gold. Everyone gets to be clad in a metaphorical bouclé jacket from time to time. The “Writing in Prison” version of this phenomenon is perhaps the most widely represented.  Oscar Wilde, Antonio Gramsci, Leonard Peltier, Reinaldo Arenas — all managed to produce important work under the most adverse conditions imaginable, quite frankly putting the rest of us dilettantes and poetasters to shame.  Even Geoffrey Rush, as the Marquis de Sade in Quills, manages to make scribbling manifestos in shit on the walls of one’s cell look simultaneously effortless and glam.

Popular images of writers thus seem to fall at two extremes of the spectrum: creative types are either hopelessly blocked, or conspicuously incontinent.  Words either won’t come, or won’t stop: there doesn’t seem to be any room in the middle.  Writing is not allowed to appear a workmanlike activity, involving routine tasks, mundane repetition, diligence, and sheer ass-in-the-chair persistence.  The Levenger catalogue doesn’t pander to either of these extremes.  Their depiction of the writing lifestyle strikes out, admirably, for new territory.  The Levenger World is one in which writers (and readers) carefully gather the tools they will need to accomplish the task at hand, painstakingly prepare their immaculate work environments, ponder in advance what they need to do and how they will go about doing it.  They plan and notate and underline and schedule.  They neither wad up reams of paper in poetic frustration, nor fling their words on the walls of their prisons using their own blood.  They are dull.  They are probably extraordinarily productive.

Blaise Pascal, in his 1670 collection of notes toward a projected defense of Christianity, suggests that faith follows action; we can induce a spiritual or intellectual result by creating the material conditions it requires.  “You would like to attain faith, and do not know the way,” he advises.  “Learn of those who have been bound like you, and who now stake all their possessions….  Follow the way by which they began; by acting as if they believed, taking the holy water, having masses said, etc.  Even this will naturally make you believe.” [6] Perhaps there are times when the only way to feel like a writer, to have faith in your ability to produce something, anything, worth reading, is to act like a writer: pick up your Mont Blanc pen, lean back in your oxblood leather chair, let your gaze rest on your New World Chairside Globe, and wait for inspiration to strike.  Stake all your possessions, suggests Pascal.  Little did he suspect.

•   •   •

But this lets the purveyors of these props and the petit-bourgeois who use them off the hook.  I feel a bit squeamish speculating — even briefly, even waggishly — that the rituals and accoutrements of an ancient religion (however much I disavow it) are akin to the lucite bulldog clips and natural-cherry bill caddies of Levenger.  Not out of any sense of religious propriety, mind you — but because I just can’t let go of my annoyance with the people I picture buying these items.  People who, I imagine, run around loudly proclaiming their Love of Reading when they’re not busy producing dull-as-dirt diary entries in “microbrewed” Gemstone Green ink.

In a recent essay in The New York Times Book Review, Cristina Nehring hilariously skewers a young man sporting an “I’m a Reader!” button at her town’s annual book festival.  As she points out, this newly pervasive attitude of readerly self-congratulation is as nonsensical as it is annoying: “It is easy to fetishize things that we imagine are on their way out.  In the age of Comcast and America Online, books seem quaint, whimsical, imperiled and therefore virtuous.  We assume that reading requires a formidable intellect. We forget that books were the television of previous years.” [7] What irritates Nehring is the vacuity of much public discussion of books.  The mere act of reading has become an acceptable substitute for having any thoughts or informed opinions about what one has read.  I see this attitude filtering down (up?) to the level of the college classroom, where in recent years I’ve noticed more and more students complaining about the specialized vocabulary involved in analyzing literature.  “Why can’t we just talk about how we feel about the novel?” and “Why do we always have to read so much into everything?” are comments that I’m starting to hear more frequently among even upper-level students.  Thirty years from now, will some of these same students begin to regret how little they got out of their undergraduate literary studies, notice a real lack in their own intellectual development, and promptly go on-line and order an Italian leather bookcover from Levenger to fill the void?

The fact is, attaining real cultivation and expertise as a reader is utterly unrewarded by this culture.  By “expertise,” I don’t necessarily mean formal education. Most of the people whose thoughts and writings I admire have one thing in common: they have dedicated themselves to a more or less full-time pursuit of knowledge and, for lack of a better word, erudition.  The writers I admire long ago decided that The Life of the Mind is an admirable life.  And in order to pursue this life, they have made sacrifices.  It goes without saying that unless they are independently wealthy or best-selling authors, people who have devoted themselves to arts and letters cannot afford most things in the Levenger catalogue.  But even more disturbing, these people also don’t have much cultural capital or prestige, or even get much basic respect for their vocations.  It is not a glamorous thing, to be a writer or a teacher in America.  But for some reason, sporting expensive versions of the tools of these professions is.

Not that it really matters.  I don’t care all that much about great financial success, and I imagine most people who’ve chosen to write for a living don’t either.  (Of course, it would be nice if people who have made other choices would stop referring to our summers, spent either frantically researching and writing in order to justify our existence in the academy or at least torturing ourselves with a blinking cursor, as “vacation.”)  No, the fact of the matter is, most writers, academics, and teachers probably don’t spend too much time regretting the Lexuses and the summer houses; if we did, we would have chosen other professions.  We don’t want to have it all.  We just don’t want the stockbrokers to have it all, either.

You’ve made your bed, Mr. and Ms. Levenger Shopper; now lie in it.  Sorry, but you don’t get to have glittering wealth, cultural capital, and a cushy retirement — and get to walk around feeling smug and self-important about your Dedication to Reading.  If you chose to major in marketing as an undergraduate — and doubtless complained to your literature professors that they were “reading too much into” the novels that you wanted just to enjoy for the plot — then you now reap the rewards of that decision.  If you want to drop a sawbuck on vocabulary-boosters like Rare Words and Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary (“the dictionary that declared your independence”!?), that’s terrific.  Just don’t be such a prig about it.

To be clear: I absolutely do not begrudge people really wanting to learn later in life.  I think it’s fabulous when people ask to audit my classes because they want to study literature seriously. But I resent the dabbling mentality: I resent the way the Levenger catalogue seems to suggest that you can skip straight to the wisdom and cultivation and suede elbow patches without putting in a lot of hard intellectual work first. About ten years ago, an ad appeared in the back of The Economist, which has haunted me ever since I first saw it.  (In fact, the yellowed clipping has been on my office door wherever I’ve taught since graduate school).  The ad is for a series of recorded lectures called “The Great Minds of the Western Intellectual Tradition”: “[P]erhaps you once vowed that some day you would plow through all the great thinkers of the Western world….  But you know you never will.  Frankly, it would require a minimum of several years of withdrawal from active life, and devotion to intense effort and concentration.  Now, at last, here is a feasible way to enjoy the intellectual adventure of a lifetime.  A way you can comfortably grasp the essence and consequence of each thinker’s greatness, in leisure moments in your home or car.” [8]

Yes, God knows we should all avoid “devotion to intense effort and concentration” — this dictum is one of the cornerstones of the American ethos.  (“Isn’t there some kind of summary, some sort of market-report version of these writings I can just flip through instead?”)  Somehow this ad manages simultaneously to fetishize the Great Thinkers and make those very people seem faintly pathetic for having wasted their time in “withdrawal from active life.”  They should have just come up with this stuff during leisure moments in their homes and cars.

The program features “6 widely acclaimed lecture professors on audio and video cassettes,” who are doubtless supplementing their own sub-par salaries by helping buff up the cultural patinas of CEOs and robber barons who are too involved in active life to actually do any reading.  The set-up creates an image of university professors as the new court jesters: fey, whimsical folk who live mostly on the margins of society, yet are occasionally summoned to give a little intellectual sheen to an event before being sent back to their book-lined hidey-holes.  You slept through these very same lectures in college, but now that you’ve realized a bit of Culture might help you succeed in the cutthroat world of corporate finance, you call in some geek backup.  The whole Great Minds enterprise reminds me of a stock sitcom premise: Schoolyard Bully repeatedly knocks down little Poindexter, whose nose is always buried in a book, and keeps breaking his glasses.  But weeks later, when Bully needs help studying for a history test — you guessed it! — Poindexter is there for him, and the two become fast friends.  Hijinks ensue when Bully refuses to acknowledge his shameful new pal at the class pizza party, but all comes out right in the end when (after a brief moral struggle) he publicly sticks up for the nerd in the face of his bully-colleagues’ taunting, learning a valuable lesson along the way about the basis of real friendship.  He gets a B-minus on the test.

The cost of this videotaped omnibus is — brace yourselves — four hundred forty-nine dollars and ninety-five cents (Virginia residents please add 4.5% sales tax).  And this is in 1996 currency.  While spending this much dough on videotaped lectures doesn’t seem as morally reprehensible to me as, say, spending twice that amount on a chocolate-leather-covered desk chair, it’s not the money part that toasts my cheese.  It’s the way the product is pitched: the people who put this compendium together clearly know their market, and they know that the way to sell these tapes is to emphasize how easy it will be to acquire the superficial semblance of learning.  You can “comfortably” grasp these concepts in your snippets of spare time.  When I last checked, there was nothing comfortable about the thoughts and writings of “Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Moses, Jesus, Marcus Aurelius, Augustine, Aquinas, More, Machiavelli, Bacon, Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza, Newton, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Smith, Rousseau, Kant, Burke, Montesquieu, Hegel, Marx, Mill, Kierkegaard, Darwin, Freud, Nietzsche, James, Ayers, Quine, Wittgenstein, Weber, Habermas, Kuhn, Rorty, Foucault, Rawls, Levi-Strauss, etc.”  Isn’t the discomfort of these people’s ideas the whole point?  But if you have the cash, you can skip over the pesky learning part and get straight to the pretentious-cocktail-party-banter payoff: “[j]ust listening to these lectures — whether you decide to supplement them by browsing through the texts of the works discussed or not — will give you a grasp of the intellectual history of the Western world possessed by as few as one out of every thousand Americans.”  And when you happen to bump into one of these very few Americans — a marginalized adjunct lecturer, a struggling writer, or an impoverished journalist — perhaps you can bond over your shared status as Serious Readers.

Levenger now has its own version of the salad-bar approach to intellectual accomplishment: the newly published Little Guide to Your Well-Read Life, written (and read, on the optional audio CDs) by Steve Leveen himself. [9] The secret to being a Serious Reader, apparently, is to “give yourself permission to read your way.”  This method includes “[b]eing able to give up on a book with no guilt” and “discovering the full power of audiobooks.”  Speaking as a literature teacher, I had always thought of these techniques as “failing to complete one’s assignments” and “cheating.”  Granted, consenting adults reading for pleasure should be absolutely free to stop reading a book whenever they want, or to listen to Sally Struthers reading the audio version during their morning commutes.  But do we need to purchase a self-help book to tell us this?  My idea of a guide to the well-read life would involve pushing casual readers beyond their limitations rather than letting them off the hook for not finishing Crime and Punishment, which Steve discovered two-thirds of the way through was “not enough crime and too much punishment.” [10] But what do I know?  Apparently I have failed, as yet, to grasp the most important lesson of all: that “a well-read life has little to do with how many or even which books you read.”  You don’t say.

•   •   •

I’m not sure I’m any closer to understanding the real source of my annoyance with the Levenger catalogue.  Perhaps I simply don’t have enough leisure time to devote to a proper study of the text.  After a certain amount of analysis, I feel I grasp the basic Levenger philosophy, but that doesn’t fully explain the depth of my animus.  Sour grapes?  Bitter self-recrimination?  Do I really want a Lexus after all?  Since we’re all supposed to be dirty Marxists in the academy, I’ll just take the easy way out and assume it’s about the money. I ask you this favor, Gentle Reader: look deep into your heart, and contemplate the state of your own soul.  Are you a Levenger buyer?  Have you purchased anything from this catalogue in the past five years that cost more than ten dollars?  (Everyone’s allowed to slip a little.)  As you made this purchase, did you imagine yourself — even briefly — appearing more erudite, intellectual, or learned as a result of this new acquisition?  If so, then the next time you’re tempted to blow over a thousand bucks on a Samuel Johnson Club Chair (matching Ottoman available), instead please consider donating this sum to your local public library or literacy campaign.  Or better yet, volunteer as a tutor yourself, and spend some of your leisure moments with someone who might really want to become a reader.  Seriously.

[1] According to the American Direct Marketing Association, nearly 20 billion consumer catalogues were mailed in the U.S. in 2007. Direct Marketing Association, Statistical Fact Book, 30th ed. (2008): 70.

[2] Back in late June 2005, when I started my intensive research for this essay, the Levenger website was even advertising something they termed “Leather Lollapalooza,” with up to 60% off cowskin-covered items.

[3] Doris Stanley, “Tanning Research Update,” Agricultural Research 46.11 (November 1998): 12-13, http://www.ars.usda.gov/is/AR/archive/nov98/tan1198.htm.

[4] “Leather: Animals Abused And Killed for Their Skins,” PETA Media Center, http://www.peta.org/factsheet/files/FactsheetDisplay.asp?ID=58.

[5] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press), 2002.

[6] Blaise Pascal, Pensées, trans. W. F. Trotter (New York: Modern Library, 1941), 83.

[7] Cristina Nehring, “Books Make You a Boring Person,” New York Times 27 June 2004, late ed.: 7.23.

[8] The Economist, 19 October 1996: 91.

[9] You can read more about the book on Steve’s website, http://www.yourwellreadlife.com.  There are, of course, many pricey leatherbound accessories to purchase as accompaniments to Steve’s reading system.

[10] “About Steve Leveen,” http://www.yourwellreadlife.com/home/bio.asp.