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.