» Arrange a Lecture with James!

The Sadness of Greatness

» May 30th, 2017

 

In the summer of 1984 John McEnroe beat Jimmy Connors in the Wimbledon finals 6-1, 6-1, 6-2. The match was, as one British journalist called it, “the most imperious victory in the history of tennis.” McEnroe made only three unforced errors. Seventy-eight percent of his first serves were in. Ten were aces. After a couple of those aces, Connors looked down in confusion, as if his shorts had dropped to his ankles. All McEnroe could say about the match was that the ball looked like “a cantaloupe.” It was as close as a tennis player had ever come to achieving actual perfection.

And that was the problem. The awful irony of McEnroe’s victory over Connors was that—in its near perfection—the performance couldn’t be sustained beyond the moment. The victory thus marked a year during which McEnroe would gradually sense what perhaps only exceptional athletes can sense: the moment of his own demise. The result of that realization for McEnroe was, McEnroe being McEnroe, an explosive moment of personal recognition, manifested, naturally, in an infamous tantrum.

Read more here. 

Celebrating Walt

» May 23rd, 2017

 

 

When I was a history graduate student in the waning days of the analog nineties, there were three kinds of researchers. Most impressive were the archive rats. These chain-smoking, type-A cranks entered an archival collection, knew precisely the evidence they needed, and did everything but ransack the place to find it. They chewed their nails to the nub and suffered insomnia, but their work showed a rare, if manic, evidentiary depth. Then there were the curious browsers: laid-back dreamers with a loosely generalized notion about what they sought. They limited themselves to documents that seemed interesting, floating among their sources with poetic insouciance. Their work, like cloud formations, drifted until it cohered into elegance. (They were also the only grad students I knew who smoked weed.) Finally, there were the surgical strikers. Soulless but engineered for accuracy, these students knew precisely which few documents to examine, did so with disinterested velocity, patched the holes in their dissertations, and then went to lunch. Prolific was how the rats and browsers praised the surgical strikers—faintly, of course.

Full article here. 

Faith Blooms in The Waste Land

» March 27th, 2017

Early in her novel Wise BloodFlannery O’Connor describes protagonist Hazel Motes, leader of the Church without Christ, by the silhouette he casts on the sidewalk. “Haze’s shadow,” she writes, “was now behind him and now before him.” It’s a strange way to situate a character — skulking between his shadows — but it’s not unprecedented. In The Waste LandT.S. Eliot’s narrator refers to “Your shadow at morning striding behind you/Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you.” Coincidence? Nobody can say for certain. But in the rare case of a critic linking O’Connor and Eliot, Sally Fitzgerald (O’Connor’s close friend) wrote that “it was Eliot and his Waste Land who provided for her the first impetus to write such a book as Wise Blood.”

Read more. 

Southern Discomfort

» March 21st, 2017

The American artist William Christenberry, who died at age eighty last November, received a Brownie camera for Christmas when he was a young boy. The first photos he took included images of graveyards. One is tempted to read prophecies into that opening act. The motif of Christenberry’s art had always been the rural South. The beloved “postage stamp of native soil” he photographed every year for several decades was in Hale County, Alabama, where he was born and grew up. Graveyard themes such as death and decay are easily attached to the Deep South, which languished during the postwar boom; so it seems natural to attach the same themes to Christenberry’s work, interpreting his graveyard debut as the apt initiation into a career centered on a place that was, if only by virtue of its persistent southernness, slowly going to seed.

Read more. 

The Time Is Ripe for Literary Fiction

» March 4th, 2017

In 2013, James Patterson, the paperback writer whose volumes are typically consumed somewhere between 25,000 and 32,000 feet above ground, made $90 million from book sales. Ninety million dollars. With publishers finally quashing the old-school idea that big-name authors should release no more than a book a year, Patterson opened the floodgates. After assembling a 16-member gang of ghostwriters (provided by Little, Brown and Company, his publisher) and sketching a series of boilerplate plot lines, Team Patterson started cranking into the lowbrow literary universe two to four “BookShots” a month. He says he looks at writing “the way Henry Ford would look at it.” He also says he’s responsible for about one-third of his publisher’s overall book sales.

The established literati, as you might imagine, wasn’t impressed. When Patterson’s 2013 windfall earnings made news, Bill Morris, a staff writer for the literary website The Millions, deigned to sample the Patterson oeuvre by reading (while on an international flight) Pop Goes the Weasel. It didn’t go well. “Books like Pop Goes the Weasel,” he wrote, “are for people who don’t really like to read but love to be able to say they have read, much as fruity cocktails are for people who don’t really like to drink but love to get knee-walking drunk.” Alcohol analogy notwithstanding, the assessment is fairly standard among readers and writers who prefer Proust over Patterson. The man’s literary bona fides are, in short, nil.

Read more here. 

The Myth of Trump

» January 31st, 2017

 

As Americans turn to George Orwell’s 1984 (1949) to better understand Donald Trump’s election, as we entertain the exciting possibility that we can read our way to some level of sensible public understanding, it’s time to suggest another classic 20th-century work, one that lends even deeper insight into Trump’s unlikely rise to power: Roland Barthes’ Mythologies (1957). Like Orwell, Barthes deals in language. Unlike Orwell, he deals in language to elucidate the subversive (and oppressive) power of myth. Trump is more than a butcher of language. He is a builder of myths.

Myths are not, in Barthes’ analysis, innocent origin stories. They are dangerous cultural distortions. They cleanse language of its history, and liberate words from their past, all in order to make a non-essential (and often ridiculous) connection seem essential. This somewhat mystical (myths are mysterious) transformation works by suggesting that certain fabricated phenomena are all natural (and, thus, all good) while hiding the cynical process of social construction behind their making. We build myths to prevent as many people as we can from asking questions about the hidden distortion that, inevitably, serves someone’s interest at the expense of truth, justice, and enlightened common sense.

Read more here.

Around the Corner

» January 20th, 2017

 

In 1912, the essayist Randolph Bourne wrote in the Atlantic Monthly that the ability to think “was given us for use in emergencies, and no man can be justly blamed if he reserves it for emergencies.” If the photography of Francesca Woodman can be reduced to one defining feature, it’s that she provides emergencies. Woodman’s emergencies are not loud or particularly dangerous; they don’t require alarms or intervention. But they do ask us to think, to ponder the urgency of an unorthodox kind of desire—a desire that insists, I am here, naked and soft, on one side of a wall, and I want to be over there, on the other side, where an equally naked and soft orchid flirts with me. This situation is serious.

For Woodman, who died in 1981 at twenty-two, convincing viewers to accept this predicament as crisis-worthy was a body-centered ambition. Feminist critics have long noted how she used her body to simultaneously court and reject “the male gaze.” Others have suggested that she posed as an unabashed object of seduction as an attention-grabbing tactic. Both claims seem generally credible. But what’s difficult to reconcile fully is how Woodman’s pictures—most of them, at least—tend to slowly sap her body of eroticism. The surrounding drama, in all its preoccupying power, overwhelms the potential for seduction. The extent of Woodman’s nakedness ends up reflecting no more or less than the relative need, under the particular circumstances, for clothing. “I am as tired as the rest of you of looking at me,” she once wrote in an undated letter. When clothes are involved, as they often are, they are necessary to the photo’s narrative.

Read more here.

The Challenges of Bibliotherapy

» January 2nd, 2017

As an advocate for both books and therapy, I determined, upon first hearing the word “bibliotherapy,” that this might be my bespoke profession. I go to group therapy. I read a lot of novels. I’m constantly recommending novels to my group. Members struggling with various problems typically don’t count on me to empathize through personal experience. They count on me for book recommendations. Your adult son is an expat in Europe and is exploring his sexuality? See Caleb Crain’s Necessary Errors. You feel alienated from your wealthy family but drawn to nagging spiritual questions about existence? Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer is for you. Gutted by the loss of a loved one? You could do worse than James Agee’s A Death in the Family (Men’s therapy group, by the way).

Read more here. 

Animal Citizenship?

» August 3rd, 2016

What follows is the intro to my recent piece in the Virginia Quarterly Review. Clink link below to go to full article.

Dylan, a three-year-old yellow Lab, leaped from the van and made a beeline for Beth, a volunteer who was standing alone in her driveway, pressing a black blindfold to her eyes. This was their second meeting. Judging from Dylan’s demeanor (his tail wagged like a metronome) his final days as a guide-dog-in-training were happy ones. His trainer, Natalie Garza, introduced Dylan to my daughter and me, and although he bowed his head for a scratch, you could tell his heart wasn’t in it. Instead, he was focused on the task at hand: leading Beth, who otherwise has normal vision, on a test walk through a suburban neighborhood in Austin, Texas.

Guiding a sighted volunteer, Garza explained, required Dylan to work harder than usual. Specifically, he had to exaggerate his signals with Beth, signals that a visually impaired person accustomed to sightless navigation might not require. Dylan, who was soon to be matched with his first visually impaired guardian, couldn’t afford to cut corners today. “These dogs save people’s lives,” Beth reminded me as Garza lowered a harness over Dylan’s head and adjusted it for comfort. He had to be on his game.

Complete article here.

Meet The Reeds

» July 22nd, 2016

Like most people who vow to lose weight, Becca Reed?—?51, diabetic, confined to a wheelchair, taking nearly a dozen medications?—?had precise goals. Unlike most people, she’s willing to share them. On a piece of crinkled notebook paper she wrote in bubbly cursive script what she hoped her future would be like:

  1. Reach 225 pounds or less.
  2. Feel sexy and buy an outfit at a regular store.
  3. Have James look at me with that sparkle in his eye.
  4. Feel better able to clean the house.
  5. Walk five minutes straight.
  6. Bench press 100 pounds or more.
  7. Back fat and fat above butt—get rid of it.
  8. Strengthen arms?—?flabby upper part.
  9. Get off medication!
  10. Ride horses on Padre Beach with James.
  11. Be able to stand long enough to sing more than one song.

James Reed, Becca’s husband, is a baby-faced 57 who suffers from his own obesity-related problems, namely his high blood pressure, which was 250/190 before he was finally medicated for it. He, too, made a list of weight-loss goals and agreed to share it:

Short Term:

  1. Get below 250 pounds.
  2. Feel better about myself.
  3. Sleep.
  4. Bench 400 pounds.
  5. Leg press 600 pounds.
  6. No blood pressure meds.

Long Term:

  1. Weigh 210–215 pounds.
  2. Make it to retirement.
  3. Don’t become diabetic.

I recently sat down with Becca, James, and their 26-year old son Drew . . . . Read More