Showing posts from December, 2014

Sam Spade in the S.S.

George Orwell used to speak of "good bad books" and occasionally he argued they were better indices of the cultural moment than anything written by more celebrated authors.  In other words, the Raffles crime novels by E.W. Hornung revealed more about the public's attitude toward right and wrong during the 1930s than any of the works of Thomas Mann.

This notion has occurred to me more than once as I've enjoyed my way through Philip Kerr's Bernie Gunther series.  On one level Gunther is a standard-issue pulp gumshoe: former cop, current PI, divorced, remorseful, cynical.  He's straight out of the Raymond Chandler-Dashiell Hammett-Ross McDonald playbook.

The only change is the setting.  Bernie's a good man in the Third Reich.  Along the way he finds himself working with the likes of Heydrich, Himmler, Eichmann and Mengele.  And--like all good detectives in the noir genre--he struggles to follow the semblance of a moral code in a thoroughly corrupt society. …

The Anxious Hand Off

Anyone who's taught for a while knows that students are anxious about handing in their assignments.  They often walk into the classroom and immediately want to give it to you.  You had planned to ask for the papers at the end of the period (or to let the students share their work with each other). 

But no. 

There they are standing directly in front of you and determined to be rid of the awful thing at the earliest conceivable moment.  I've never understood this behavior.  Whenever I ask them about it, they tell me it's just a relief for the work to be out of their hands.  It's done, off the to-do list.  No longer their problem.  That makes a certain sense, I guess.

Now that I've switched to on-line grading, of course, this anxious little ritual has become more complex and distressing for them.  They must now upload their assignment to the course management system, fretting all the while that something may go wonky.  Indeed, they sometimes get so stressed that t…

Book Ends

I am not sure why but the reading I do over holiday break is always the most delicious.  On any given break I generally devour six or seven titles.  Maybe it's because the weather is cold and fishing out of the question.  Maybe it's just the relief from grading, but every year I look forward to this four week mid-winter book binge.  Part of its attraction is the idea of resuming my own secret reading life. 

Several years ago I read an essay by the novelist Jonathan Franzen.  As someone who derives his living from readers, he had long worried about the demise of a reading public. By chance, however, he met a sociology professor who for years had been studying people's reading habits.  Whenever this professor spotted people in public reading serious literature, she interviewed them on how they became a reader. Turns out devoted readers fall into two groups. The first grew up in households where reading was the norm. The parents read, encouraged the kids to read, and the hou…

B.C. and A.D.

A colleague stopped by this morning and told me that his son, a recent grad, had come home over the weekend filled with some post-graduation blues.  I know this young man only slightly (mostly from his father's intermittent updates), but I can certainly empathize with his feelings about his new grind.  Like a lot of recent grads, he may just now be noticing that there's a difference between the intensity and drama of college and 'real life' (a phrase I very much detest).
Indeed, the term real life is almost always used to contrast serious, everyday work with the slap-and tickle un-seriousness of academic life.  My own take is that a great deal of so-called real life is filled with boredom, empty routine and petty annoyance, a point David Foster-Wallace made several years ago in his graduation address at Kenyon CollegeFoster-Wallace evoked the future for the happy grads:
...let's say it's an average adult day and you get up in the morning, go to your challengin…