Saturday, October 22, 2005


I'm in the process of revising my dissertation, which is essentially a comparative analysis of indigenousness and promised land in ancient Greek philosophy and Hebrew scripture, as well as German and Jewish philosophy in modern Germany. Now, as you might expect, I have to do a lot of reading and research to support my obscure theory, and most of the...ahem..."scholarship" isn't well written. In fact, I think it safe to say that the bulk of academic writing is badly written. Very badly written. The tortured syntacs, heavy use of jargon and all around lack of style make reading it frustrating and even downright painful, engendering a kind of migraine that no amount of caffeine or aspirin can diffuse.

So, when reading academic "scholarship," I have to balance my mind's diet with good reading, either rich fiction or concise non-fiction, like histories or essays. I try to resist the temptation to watch much TV because when I do so I can actually feel huge sections of my brain shutting down, like factory lights turning off one stage at a time following the closing bell.

Yesterday I dropped by the local Barnes & Noble in search of good essays and a cup of coffee. I found one small set of shelves under the rubric 'Essays', which contained mostly names I didn't recognize (that's OK) and volumes filled cover-to-cover with book and theatre reviews (not OK). I don't know if the goateed floorwalkers who clerk the store know that a book review is not an essay or not, but I did point out to one several months ago that displaying the Koran on the bottom shelf is a big no-no, and that Houston does indeed have a very sizeable Muslim community, some of whom might take offense. He didn't heed my advice, and to this day Islamic scripture remains on the lowest shelf. They've been warned.

Now, when I want to read an essay, I want a sharp witted, thought experiment based on personal experience. It must be written by someone who has actually lived life, and not some idle bibliophile or armchair critic trapped in the mechanics of plot, character and narrative. What I don't want is a long-winded rant on the problems with "Gone with the Wind" or the accuracy of John Updike's characterization of middle class boredom. When I want to read a book or movie review, I'll turn to that section in the newspaper.

It seems, however, that my preference is not the prevailing view. And that what passes for personal experience these days is unimaginative encounters with characters in print and film media. Not passing references mind you, like when I say here we have a perfect illustration of Nietzsche's insightful passage entitled 'How the World Became a Fable.' Rather, these non-essays constitute a kind of enclosed textual world, where one writer drools incessantly on the work of another writer, stretching analysis well beyond the breaking point.

Herein lies the difference between a good writer and bad writer. The bad writer is something of a poser, either echoing the experiences of another writer or, worse, laboring over another writer's fictional characters as if he grew up next door to Lewis' Babbit or dated Tolstoy's Anna Karinina. This is the high-brow version of being a Trekkie. Like the Tolkiener, he is forever ensnarled in a neurotic world of make-believe, unable to grasp the grit and delicacy of the real world and make it his own. A rather sad, pathetic existence, in my humble opinion.

The good writer soaks up real life like a sponge, and when melancholy, sexual addiction or alcohol doesn't interfere, he hides away on occasion to put into words the follies and failures of his world. In other words, the experiences replay themselves, and he just writes them down.

Someday I'll draw up a list of good essays and post it. But until then, the search continues.