Four Years and Twenty-Three Days Ago

Four years and twenty-three days ago I made an extremely common mistake: I agreed to a friend’s request. He recommended that a couple we both knew, two of his friends and I visit a picturesque, elaborate, and once widely-celebrated establishment known for its hookah and cocktails. He and I went together while the three would attempt to come later. The weather was wintery, and cold and rainy. In effect we went during the sliver of offseason afforded by nature but, in any event, the place had already begun its descent to shabbiness and demolition.

The business itself was on the third floor. The first floor faced the boardwalk and was, functionally, a promenade to the eastern facing approach. A wooden staircase connected the groundfloor to the third and groaned as we climbed its unvarnished boards. The grass needed cutting. The roof was a patchwork dating back to the 60s. More or less every surface of the exterior was biting from salt’s erosion. The businesses had two large doors, but the wood paneling was either peeling away or a patchwork of stain from ersatz replacements.

I agreed to this because my friend was an agreeable alcoholic. “I do not have a problem, I have a preoccupying hobby.” One day he drank he drank a bottle of champagne, what was left of a bottle of red wine, started on a glass flask of Jack Daniels—while eating his way through gingersnaps and goat cheese. This began at eleven in the morning. At eight he fell asleep. At ten he woke up around the time we were heading out, and he followed. He drank three Old Fashioneds, four plain shots of bourbon, skipped dinner, and puked the next day until five. At five thirty he resumed his normal course. He admitted, “In the long run, gets rather unhealthy.”

He was agreeable in all ways but one. He smoked, which is no vice, but when he smoked he would put out his butts and place them in his pockets. We could smell him long before we could see him and while tobacco leaves may have an enticing aroma, there was nothing enticing about the lingering smell of burnt filter.

On entering we made the acquaintance of the proprietor, or some agent thereof, who was ugly, lazy and, really, quite accommodating. He monitored and curated a collection of faded couches, fraying armchairs, and coffee tables with new, plastic tops. In the corner was a shabby bar where the threadbare carpets had entirely given way. Bemusingly, not to be confused with amusingly, the lighting in each area is either too dim or too bright.

Since we did not see the others, we headed for the bar. The bartender was a small, middle aged man, smartly dressed, with an exceptionally lively, intelligent face – and a perceptible air of sadness. He was, like the rest of us, alone but also, I must say, deeply and truly lonely. My friend ordered a half dozen martinis to be prepared not sequentially but simultaneously—six shining glasses in a bright row, down which he would work, all the while talking at a rapid pace.

As he waited and drank the sun sank until it smiled crookedly like a fingernail. The declining light softened the sharp contrast of the establishment’s lighting and for the first time I was able to make a full inspection of the other patrons. We observed each other. There were a few Iranian businessmen, a few Pakistanis and a group of schoolteachers whose loud, crying laughter echoed horrifyingly among the quiet leather. Taken collectively I can say several things. First, at no time did any of the groups acquaint each other with another. Second, no social interaction proceeded beyond polite nods. Third, we made no indication except with the barest of turns that we noticed the passing of each other as we walked around the establishment.

When I turned my attention back to the steadily thinning stems, I noticed a new presence in our company. She immediately engaged me in her own conversation. Why she did this I cannot say for certain, but I believe that people perceive my mind as at rest. My face, which enjoys a default position studiously devoid of emotion, may imply that I am an endless supply of life without stress and obstacles, that I dream up what I want to do. Then I do what I dream or sometimes I do not but it is all baloo in the end. For this reason they tell me about themselves even though it is a fact that I do not know how to react to stories. My face brings characters and events to me and as long as I maintain my ability to look and listen people seek me out.

In literature and movies, sexual revelation is a matter of tact and occasion. Whether or not such candor is appreciated depends on the revealer’s attitude more than, even, the listener’s. But tact, mercifully, usually forbades us to tell other what one feels or, especially, Feels. Today I am never quite certain why memoirists are so eager to tell us what they do in bed. Unless the autobiographer has a case to be argued, I suspect that future readers will skip those sexual details that our writers have so generously shared with us in order to get to the gossip and the jokes. For this reason I am, these years later, equally mystified about her.

I have no recollection of all what was said, though much of involved hiking with her college roommates, but I remember her concluding with a small grin that “Come is a horrible word to apply to something ecstatic.”

On the Balcony

Some time ago, it does not matter precisely when, I was sitting on a balcony’s faux-wood floor. My condition was framed by two incredibly large and incredibly clear sliding doors. The walls inside were white. The floors were of a cheap white tile fashionable in the 70s and polished to a gleam. The glare from the sea was so pronounced that the room, as much as the sun above, seemed, by contrast to the balcony, extremely bright. All the dark corners had escaped along with me to the balcony. I say this because I remember my worry that I would be construed as the type who, in spite the south side’s perfect view of blue sea, had taken to the darkest corner, which was, worst of all, outside. In other words a loon of a very peculiar and unfashionable type—as if I was looking to thread the needle between the refinements of a well-curated interior and the beauty of those south facing bay windows.

Inside there were paper bags half filled with aluminum wrappers and animal fries and empanadas and empty bottles of gin that were white rimmed from excitement and thirst. A single red cup lay in the middle of the living room and around it a read splash had dried along the caulking in rough coagulated lines. I took this in because one of my favorite whites had performed the task of eratsz damn and, having left my shoulders, was finished as a piece of conventional clothing. Beside, near an overstuffed red armchair, was a pale-blue cashmere top and matching dress, both understated and from a thrift store whose sign I could, just barely, discern among the sprawl. Indeed sweat drenched finery lay all over, even among the balcony.

I listened to the following conversation that took place below and across the street outside a bar that was notable only because it required everyone to wear shoes.

“It’s an hour to Tijuana,” he said.

The other, “yeah.”

“We could spend the night out there.”

“Yeah,” a half pause, “nah.”

A laugh, “Nah, yeah.”

“We planning to come back?

“I was thinking we could get a little sliced. There’s a nice house my cousin owns. We could be back Sunday to see Kim.”

“I guess. Will Kim be down from West Covina on Sunday?”

He then said “No.”

I was unsure in whose favor the dialogue had been resolved, or if it had been resolved at all.

The faux-wood was beginning to heat up. I felt an individual drop of sweat work its way down my body. I tried stretching but my leg had gone to sleep. I did not stand up because my unspecific phobias seemed to be rendering everything I did in my space useless.

I waited. I remember that I did not like to wait and I despised waiting. I still do. I attribute this to uncomfortable childhood experiences. In line I was assaulted by my body, that thing, whose eating, pissing and sleeping crises (did I mention eating) reached a fever pitch as they acquired an ever more solid stake in the immediacy of self in rough correlation with how far I was from the front.

Perhaps there was an attraction to waiting. It tastes just the way it looks: responsibility no longer rests with you, and freedom from responsibility can cause incredible tipsiness. It’s easier than putting up with everything. Easier to talk. But when the time comes your knees will be wobbly. And depression—a perpetual depression—until the next time responsibility is foisted. This peculiar effect has no name but that it exists in German as a compound word I have no doubt.

It was a long while later when Alex arrived. He had on a pair of khaki chinos and no shirt. Over his khakis sat a pair of assless chaps but with cheap, vinyl leis instead connected by twine. He had on a pair of wide, CHIP-gold Vans that he wore like flip flops with the heel-side pressed down. While he sat there he plucked only the purple stained flowers. An hour passed before he started sending small, discrete piles of leis off the ledge onto the street below us.

On reflection the most curious aspect of his arrival was this: I did not acknowledge it. I continued working out a discernible pattern to the sprawl that extended up around our house’s hills although he was in my direct line of sight. I didn’t talk to him. Because I am large, imposing I suppose, I don’t talk a great deal to people I don’t know. I am invisible, perhaps out of fear. Most of my sentences drift off, don’t end. It’s a habit I’ve fallen into. I don’t deal well with people. I would think that this appearance of not being very much in touch was probably one of the reasons he finally stood up. “Yeah, well.”

This incident, which I often embroider to include an imaginary detour, exactly describes those slow summer days to me.

Sunshine

It is a fact that not once in my life have I enjoyed the sunshine. Every moment while I sit underneath that singing star makes me regret the old days when I was safe underneath a large, protective blanket of clouds. Or inside. When I grew up it seemed to me that the only advantage of the desert was that nobody ever wanted me to go out into the heat. I was safe, like some form of tortoise, and lived in relative peace.

The desert’s drawbacks—such as its endless dust and grasping pedipalps–assured all its resident this one immunity. But whenever I left the desert, especially with friends, I knew that at any moment, unless rain was falling with enough zest, someone, probably some man, might say “Let’s go!” in that sharp, short imperative tone I could not dream of hearing in any other connection. This desire seemed especially common whenever they saw someone comfortably settled in an arm-chair, reading.

I admit I was free to say, simply, “No.” Saying no to old friends is easy because I establish the habit early and often. No to new friends is easy because they do not yet matter. Unfortunately, this logic is unsatisfactory in a very particular way. Once you forget to say no, or more likely the no is quickly forgotten, then no is no longer a path left open. “I went last time,” “I wish I could, this time,” and so on are unconvincing. They are like dead birds and, once flung, simply return to the ground with a dull thump. Since this state of affairs can’t continue forever it follows that a single moment of weakness, once started, leads to a sweaty career of disillusionment without end.

Going out on a bright, beautiful day may be an excellent and appropriately ambitious task by those who practice it. My objection to it comes in two parts. First, no matter the temperature on stepping outside the air is thick and hot. It is like wandering into a place where you do not belong (and it is like that place exactly because outside is that place where you do not belong). Invariably, as if only to increase the heat and sweat of all those involved, and this seems particularly true on days when the day is especially bright and oppressive in its cheeriness, people hug each other and shake hands, big grins and a whoop here and there: “What a beautiful day! Good to see you, boy! Damn good … and I mean it!”

Second, on days where there is no escape from that unlidded eye the brain stops working. On a cloudy day, in a cozy café with a warm cup of coffee the conversation is always interesting. No gossip, no matter how dull, is unbearable above the gently tickling waves of steam. But on a bright day, walking around? The same man who entertained me with stories of past, present and future now says that A. (someone we both know in an unconcerned way) is a thoroughly good fellow. Fifty steps further on, he adds that A. is “one of the best guys I have ever known.” We walk another block and he says that Mrs. A. is a charming woman. “She is one of the most charming women I have ever known.” We pass a shop. He reads “Cakes and Ale.” We pass a street sign. He points at it. He says “Commerce Drive.”

“I would rather not,” but unlike Bartleby I am not willing to follow the statement to its conclusion. Instead I rely on the self-preservation of my friends. Unfortunately sunshine transcends reason. They go outside and remain. There is no destination in mind. Instead they answer from within with curt cogency. “There is no destination when we are in the sunshine. There is no ulterior motive. We are in the sunshine because of the mere fact that there is sunshine.” Existing underneath the sun is an indication of their happiness, elation or character. But while they swell with pride their brain is finding ways to escape and, eventually, abdicate altogether.

It is little wonder that the brain falls into a senseless slumber. It cannot bear such a body until it has been deposited out of the sunshine again. In the sunlight the brain becomes completely alone and if there is any wish, it is for the day of execution so that it is greeted with, at least, something—even if the something is  These signals from the brain are interpreted and reinterpreted into peculiar statements that are terrifying if taken in any other context. For example, a close friend, reclining in the sun, said with equanimity “I cannot keep my eyes open.” “I feel… as if I may just die.”

I contrast this with the days of overcast. Then the mind is alive and the senses are (thankfully!) quiet. Ensconced within cozy layers the day seems far off, away from the present and so lends itself to contemplation. The day’s gentle indifference is not hidden behind the map-white consumption of the world.

I do not hate sunshine. I will go out for a walk, occasionally, when time demands. If a few strands of sunlight infiltrate the living room I will not huff the blinds closed. I enjoy the light sensation of watching the horizontal lines of my blinds plop, one by one, up and over my book during an afternoon. At midday the sun will do any number of helpful odd jobs for you. These jobs are useful, especially during a light cleaning, but when you are bandying about outside to gratify the soul’s pride, such as it is, there is every reason for despising it.

But, pending a time when no people desire for me to go out into the sun, or I have no wish to go and see any one, I will never willfully go out into the scorch. It is an indulgence that I am confident I will never acquire, to my great benefit.

Of course, I have written this out in the sun.

Toni Morrison

Don’t write about Woman, write about a woman. This is a simple statement but controversial.

Toni Morrison was recently appointed at Columbia University, a nice gesture. Morrison would not be teaching. She would not be publishing in any academic publications. She likely will not publish much more fiction because she is rapidly approaching her mid-eighties. “Her papers” will never be released in any form to the public and will not be viewed by any biographers. Her public refusals of Henry Louis Gates Jr. to catalog her life and African American heritage needs no additional commentary. The same is true for her repeated refusals to find a memoirist (for those dear readers who do not know—nearly all ‘memoirs’ are in fact written and compiled by other people and the ostensible subject combs through a finished project).

If Columbia does not expect a sudden start to Morrison’s academic career, has doubts about her continued career as a writer and does not, or should not, expect to be the recipient of Morrison’s generosity then there is no soft answer for why she was offered this position. But the answer is not difficult. Columbia University has joined an ever greater number of the public who read Morrison to make themselves feel better about themselves.

Few judge her on whether the prose is good or what she has to say because she’s long past being an author who is understood. Or an author at all. She is an empty memorial to everything and, so, nothing at all. She’s taught, at best, and at worst she’s just another author passing the public like two dark ships at night. And we’ll probably have nice little articles, perhaps a few honors, about a Morrison completely unrelated to anything other than the article-author’s own peccadillos and loves for quite some time.

Few people appear to be reading her books. One can pick up a glut of once read, perhaps, copies of Beloved for less than a dollar: the foisted remains of each successive high school class that struggles through a book presented by aging diversity ‘trail blazers.’ Unsurprisingly, her latest novel, God Help this Child, is currently ranked in the mid 1400s on Amazon, which in fact represents something of a crest in terms of sales potential as Amazon has recently begun combining all mediums—Audio CD, Kindle, Audible Audio. Never before has it been easier to buy a book no one else does.

That Morrison is not read because Morrison—as a person—no longer matters is a neat, linear progression I think more would make if they considered it. It also explains why Morrison, as a New York Magazine piece summarized, “decades after she won her Nobel, [her] place in the pantheon is hardly assured.”

For example, elsewhere in the article, in a burst of unintentional self-parody, the same writer fired off a slew of meaningless pretensions that explain more about the article’s author than Morrison. She writes, Morrison is successful even when she isn’t successful or, in the article writer’s words, writers with “smaller ambitions” would “live on contentedly in this plush purgatory.”

But what I found especially telling in this piece was a final, parting paragraph. Tacked on, perhaps, but truncated just as the article becomes interesting. The author writes: Morrison will escape the “plush purgatory,” and “pass the test” when  “Chloe Wofford is gone, and Toni Morrison is all that’s left.”

Chloe Ardelia Wofford is Toni Morrison’s real name and, curiously enough, her preferred name—as she has stated almost incessantly since the end of her first marriage and, likely, stated long before its end. “Oh God! It sounds like some teenager—what is that?” She laughed through one interview with the Times.  “But Chloe,” she explains “That’s a Greek name. People who call me Chloe are the people who know me best. Chloe writes the books.” Toni Morrison, Ms. Wofford clarifies, does the tours, the interviews, the “legacy and all of that.”

Her legacy, so far, is bracketed by discussions of her Nobel Prize. Note well how the international community has approached Morrison, memorializing and promptly forgetting about her. Like ‘yeah, yeah, yeah—African American literature, great stuff, see you later.’ They made a nice gesture, handed out a few medals and became (I’m reminded of Tony Judt’s comment) another gnome in the land of forgetting.

And note well how the Times, serenely unaware of its own complicity, writes in the same article that Wofford does not even have control of her own name—as if that was an accusation directed against anyone but the people who appreciate her body of work. Gawker famously remarked, on the announcement that there would be a Morrison book this year, declared that there was already a ‘Best Book of 2015.’ Enter Columbia University to finally prove, channeling Dr. Johnson’s Gospel of Matthew, that pride must have a fall to prove that it is the true thing and not merely the mock.

Or, perhaps even better, a tendentious article with the word ‘vision’ in its title. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/12/magazine/the-radical-vision-of-toni-morrison.html?_r=0 As the author explains, but doesn’t get at the heart of, “The Bluest Eye,” “Sula” and “Song of Solomon” are a bold holy trinity of “classics.” How do we know this? They were the jumpstart to a “literary culture that had to either diversify or die.” And if we ignore the uncomfortable fact that literary culture died anyhow along with most of the reading public, then we get at the heart of what Morrison was to the author from virtually the very beginning. Not so much a writer, or even an artist, but a thing that everyone just wished would hurry up and die so that she could be memorialized and symbolized. And since she has (unfortunately) lingered on, we will just go ahead and memorialize all her work as “classics” before she dies.

She is often discussed in terms of her audience, the older black women who fan themselves with her book covers at her readings, the teenage girls who sigh on buses and trains while reading “Sula” for class, the young male rappers who have interpolated lines from “The Bluest Eye” into their songs.

Here the author comes so, so close to making that point. I take for granted that the “older black women” who fan themselves with Morrison’s book covers, apparently just the book covers, are just as real to the author as the “young male rappers” who have “interpolated” lines from “The Bluest Eye” into their song. By that I mean not real at all. Instead, they are reduced from an actual group of people to symbols whose actual existence is irrelevant. Morrison herself flatly reflected across other people, other times, because Morrison doesn’t exist as a person to the author either. Morrison is the ultimate mirror, and like all mirrors merely reflects back at the author the author’s own opinions.

This sort of empty memorializing, Morrison “on her own terms,” is both flatly untrue if the author is writing from the Old Gray Lady and is also a choice to evaluate Morrison on no terms at all. If I evaluated you on your own terms that would only be evaluating you on whatever items I thought were neat. Cool. Exciting. Not ‘terms’ in the classical, objective sense of the word but random notes that I bang on about. The author almost admits it, “Morrison serves as a totem for so much of this energy.” Totems don’t write, they just accumulate whatever superstitions the devoted attribute to the object. Phrased a little differently, Morrison is in fact a totem.

This sort of thinking isn’t limited to popular venues. Even odd academic pursuits, such as the recent Toni Morrison: Memory and Meaning, is ready for those heady times when we are completely free from living with Wofford. As the introduction explains one essay, “For Stave, Sweet Home is a riff on the Garden of Eden with its ‘lush pastoral setting’ that is far from innocent. She then engages both Jazz and Paradise as a ‘startling critique of the Judeo-Christian God,’ positing salvation not as religious reward but as the ‘result of human forgiveness and connectedness.’” This essay must assume that Ms. Wofford is dead—most of these essays have to as a preliminary matter. Because if they don’t their ‘research’ is useless. On one hand they can write and write and analyze. On the other they can call her up and ask.

Less interesting, but also relevant, is the creation of Morrison as a weapon. She explains herself well: her vision of God, Judeo-Christian and all, is one of forgiveness. This anthropomorphic being creates bridges and, as the cliché goes, he does not destroy them. But here, as is elsewhere, Morrison is ‘actually’ criticizing the author’s own peccadillos. Perhaps it’s an elaborate coincidence, and that it so happens that Morrison was actually thinking that when she wrote of her conception of Judeo-Christian God she was also criticizing Judeo-Christian God—or, at least, a form. But when a whole book, a whole industry, springs up where author’s appropriate Morrison for their own views coincidence begins to look like deliberateness.

I am not saying that they must pick one side or the other. I’m merely commentating on the choice they have created for themselves. One or the other: whatever Ms. Wofford happens to say is beside the point. Her ‘true’ meaning is irrelevant and the meaning that they pull from her works, which inevitably has a meaning near and dear to their own lives, is of primary importance. Literary hashish for the 21st Century.

Part of this is inevitable. Books are never written for most Americans. They simply are not. How many comments begin “I’ve never read (m)any of Ms. Morrison’s books but…?” And when you reduce book-reading even further to all dozen African-American study programs that require their students to read novels, the pool only gets smaller. The calculus, then, is that more people will care about Morrison if she is divested of her thorny, real-person edges and transformed into being a feel good story about black experience.

Young, male rappers and old, porch-bound spinsters coming together with NYT article writers to sit in a circle around the figure of Morrison–the NYT’s writer leading the discussion, of course. It doesn’t have any meaning, but in the garden of forgetting not having a point is rarely fatal. In fact the opposite is true, so Morrison herself can be left at the door (and must be). Such that someone can be quoted, criticizing the establishment, “black literature, black art, has always been put in a separate category” almost simultaneously as Morrison herself is saying ‘I write on my own terms, African-American literature first and distinct from literature over all.’ Oh well.

I had spent hours with Morrison, accosting her with questions, thinking about her, observing her, and yet for the first time I understood Morrison was a person with real human concerns.

And for the last time.

Reviewing Ready Player One, Wool, and The Martian

With a recent announcement by Paramount Pictures that they are going to scoop of the last the ‘holy trifecta’ of self-published fantasy novels I wonder, not for the last time, whether if I am alone in my apathy towards the ‘holy trifecta’ of Ready Player One, The Martian and Wool. They’re almost always mentioned together whenever I browse blogs, reddit or anywhere at all online. I legitimately believe something is wrong with me because I’ve read all three and found all three to be substantially similar, even if the details are all fiddled about, and for those reasons to find them as books to be terrible reads.

Ready Player One was a fluff fest that could be easily devoured and forgotten—sort of like a BigMac. Its careful curator of 80s memorabilia, who occasionally acts like a protagonist, strings together little set scenes that are barely related, which come together and pop apart without much ever happening. Some people come, some die and everyone is steadfastly opposed to personal growth of any sort. Death is followed by resurrection, defeat by victory, but it is impossible to say what, if anything, changed.

Similarly, if read literally, the Martian is about a sociopath stuck on Mars. Read literally it’s someone who has a complete absence of any emotional or psychological depth, much less growth, yet is someone vaguely concerned with proving thirteen year-old science ‘enthusiasts’ wrong about his methods. Or at least that’s the only conclusion I came to after reading this very thin presentation of ‘what-if-stranded-on-Mars?’ Read charitably, it’s a book about someone who has an above average understanding of ‘science,’ if science is periodically explaining a few quirks of chemistry and engineering. That is to say, it’s a book about the author and it shows. It’s certainly not about an astronaut actually on Mars.

I recently read Wool, and I was not entirely surprised for it to be equally devoid of any humanity and primarily concerned with concocting and connecting in a generally linear way a series of somewhat-thought-out scenes that would be more fitting for the ‘big screen’ than literature. It went down easily, sometimes I detected a faint whiff of irony but eventually I assumed that it was unintended self-parody rather than intentional. And again I was struck by the same feeling of not even reading a book, more like a type of frothy summer movie mixed in with an author who never really manages to disguise themselves. An acquaintance sat down with me and sort of hashed out his vision for a movie, but unfortunately we were interrupted so he took it upon himself to inflict on me his vision in an email. Unfortunately because I really don’t have much interest in reading a movie.

In fact, about a year ago, a few months ago and as recently as last week I was recommending for people who were truly divided on what one to begin (of the three, of the two or one of them singularly) to first wait for the movies. “If you really are torn between the three I’d suggest just jumping straight to comic books or a good television series. The books are either written with an eye towards television or edited that way. Or perhaps just read the few pages that are everyone’s “favorite scenes,” because that is exactly what they are. Scenes.” A reader would be much better served by ignoring “the shoehorning into the written word and enjoy them in a few years once Paramount picks them up.”

With obviously bogus protagonists, these authors must now depend on the cunning of their narrative gifts to propel these characters through great events. Finding the keys to the kingdom, finding a way off of Mars with some poop and potatoes, uncovering the secrets of a silo that depends on those very same secrets for its existence. Throughout it all the scenery, while entertaining, never quite matches up with the characters. I’m reminded of an archaic type of film where the scenery, painted on a tarp, is flung through the air by the operators without any prompting from the actors. They can keep up or they can fall behind. They can jump ahead. But the two aren’t related. At most it’s coincidence that they’re in unison.

Of course, Fox ended up picking up the Martian and Wool. Paramount captured Ready Player One. I was sort of right. They finally get to be what they were always meant to be, movies, and I still don’t get why anyone thinks they make good books. They’re scripts, at best, or at least good ideas for scripts. And really I can’t wait for the movies to air because then we can stop pretending that these novels are primarily, or even at all, concerned about sentences.

A Recommendation

I was hanging out with the wrong people. The bad people. An unusual crowd. A maddening friend. So went the parade of horribles as I nodded uncomfortably in my pew. Asleep? Such is life in the court.

I work for the ‘juvenile’ division of a public defender office, I work mainly for kids and those considered ‘adults’ in relation to the heinousness of their crime. On one occasion I was asked, by a client who is going to be incarcerated for a violation of parole, if I had any recommendations. A curious if pleasant question. He wanted to make something out of his time. He wanted to take steps toward self-improvement. He wanted a book to read.

Some decide that their incarceration will be the start for going to the gym, or finally kicking caffeine. Others have promised to watch less television, or have fiendishly reasoned that self-improvement relies on watching more television: they still don’t know what happened at the Red Wedding or who Walter White is, and this is making connecting with their fellow human beings difficult.

But what if you’re interested in connecting with your fellow human beings in a way that doesn’t require access to premium cable? At the time there was anything to say. What could I say? I could recommend some books, but uselessly. I can never forget when Starbuck tells Ahab that the hunt for Moby-Dick is against God’s purposes, and Ahab looks at him blankly. Just who is Melville’s God, or the God of those who came after him? Who is Ahab’s God? Like Prometheus, in ancient and in Romantic literature–or Gore Vidal against the New York Times–Ahab opposes himself to the sky god, even if you want to call that God Yahweh or Jehovah. He does not expect to win but he fights anyhow, perhaps like Milton’s Satan merely for the excitement of courage in the face of defeat.

I can never forget the client’s face for the same reason. He is fighting a battle he will not win and so what could I say? And yet saying nothing seemed a crime. Seems a crime. Is a crime. If not against him then against a far-off world where people know what to say.

Fortunately Penguin Books aims to help thousands of the soon-to-be-incarcerated (who else reads?) by engineering a fantastical little effort. For 80 pence, or about a 1.30 dollars, readers can purchase a lovely (“slender”) black book by Penguin. They take a bite from multiple pies—Roman history, poetry, essays from Montesquieu, a few shorts from Chekhov, a novella from Dostoevsky. No context, of course. Just snippets and little tidbits for men and women that are endlessly trying to improve themselves.

Like most marketing these days what is being sold is not product, but an image of you. For some the image is being sold as an ancillary to the product. But only some. I make no judgment, dear reader, only commentary. Note well: there is no pattern to the selection. A quote is plucked out, perhaps perfect for the creation of a Buzzfeed list, and potential customers are seduced with a future image of themselves navigating a literary iPod of little black books. Russians fill the gaps between Romans. Sappho makes an appearance. Nietzsche pops up, but since he—like myself—was never pithy he comes in an edited book of aphorisms.

What is a book without context? Not much, I am afraid, which is why recommendations are so crucial. It is why I failed. How can I capture in a few words, even a thousand, a whole book—a whole novel? There is a short story in here, I am sure, of a man who tries to recommend a book but ends up recommending it so well, so on point, that he ends up writing the book himself.

If I could have that moment back I would recommend the short stories of Anton Chekhov. There are few things about his writing that are not loved. According to a study published in October, 2013 in the journal Science, reading literary fiction — including the works of Anton Chekhov — increases scores on tests of empathy and emotional intelligence. Who wouldn’t want to be more empathetic in 2015? Much better than kicking a nascent addiction to Keurig cups.

I wonder what I should have told him about Chekhov. About Penguin Books. So it goes, in Vonnegut’s laconic phrase, and so I will tell you. Before embarking on a self-help tour of late-Czarist Russia, dear reader, be advised that Chekhov doesn’t provide easy answers to becoming a kinder, more caring person. There’s no five-step solution, no short prayer that will increase your fortunes and lay waste to the fields of your enemies. Instead he brings us into a world where bad things often happen, especially to good people. That is why he can be so difficult. He does not afford many happy endings, or endings of any sort. Yet I firmly believe that if you read his short stories, maybe even twice, then you will become a better human being than when you first went in. Here is one short story that you may like.

Chekhov will always represent the impressionistic pole of the short story, and the novel for that matter. For better or worse is it impossible to escape his shadow. He is simply a door we must pass through, having exhausted all infamy, gratefully.

But that is not what Penguin is offering, even when it offers us a few Chekhov’s shorts. They are offering a fragment, a shadow of a shadow. Instead of Chekhov, and understanding him, they are offering the appearance of improvement. Improvement without purpose. Click the Penguin, select a random book and press purchase. “Where to start? In the end I just tipped them out and stuck out my hand at random.” Don’t think about it—buy it. Improve yourself. To what end? That is the question that is better left unanswered. That is the question that makes me think about my client.

The trouble with the presumption is not that it addresses trivial or unreal issues but that it provides self-defeating solutions. Arising out a legitimate need to sell itself to an increasingly ignorant public the idea is to, well, accept that the public isn’t going to read books. They are going to buy an article that is marketed as a sleek, little, black book. But such a solution is self-defeating. Without foundation these little black books are symbols crashing. If a book falls on deaf ears does it make a sound?

Those who believe in critical thought as an indispensable precondition of social or political progress might well renounce the very possibility of progress and side with the conservatives, who at least recognize intellectual deterioration when they see it and do not attempt to disguise it as liberation. But the conservative interpretation of the collapse of standards is much too simple.

There is no wrong crowd or maddening friend. There is no group of bad influences, mistook for good. The trouble is with him. No single book, or collection of books, is going to do him much good. We failed him a long time ago. It is too late to spin the dial and hope for the best. But I guess I will.