Archive for June, 2012

Science Can Be Fun

Munro Leaf, Science Can Be Fun (1958): title page

Need an antidote to pseudoscience (“creation science,” “intelligent design,” climate change denial)?  Try a few pages from Munro Leaf’s Science Can Be Fun (1958). In its simplified, matter-of-fact approach, the book offers a model of scientific thinking, encouraging readers to observe, measure, and test hypotheses.  Most importantly, it points out that science is based upon empirical, measurable evidence.

Munro Leaf, Science Can Be Fun (1958): page 3

Munro Leaf, Science Can Be Fun (1958): page 4

In the following section of the book, Leaf talks about, as he says, “some of the things we can’t see”:

Munro Leaf, Science Can Be Fun (1958): page 29 (lower half)

Munro Leaf, Science Can Be Fun (1958): page 30

Munro Leaf, Science Can Be Fun (1958): page 31

Munro Leaf, Science Can Be Fun (1958): page 32

Munro Leaf, Science Can Be Fun (1958): page 33

Munro Leaf, Science Can Be Fun (1958): page 34

Sure, there’s a moment or two where Leaf might be more critical of science (despite the book’s optimism, not all discoveries lead to benefits for humankind), but on the whole the book is a healthy affirmation of what we can by — in Leaf’s words — “Looking, Listening and Thinking carefully.”

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Let’s Talk About Taste

There’s a new Facebook meme: “How to determine who to unfriend on Facebook.”

How to determine who to unfriend on Facebook

Click on the link, and you get a list of “Friends who like Nickelback.”

Friends who like Nickelback

The joke depends upon pervasive dislike of the popular Canadian band. At best, I find the group’s music benign. I could imagine it being used to sell soda or life insurance. Yet Nickelback’s massive success suggests that its fans are hearing something that I’m missing. Perhaps they hear vocalist Chad Kroeger’s raspy shout as emotional intensity, the bland homilies (“every second counts because there’s no second try / so live like you’ll never live it twice”) as profound insights, and the bombastic production as appropriately anthemic.

Or perhaps it’s more complicated.  Certainly, it’s a question of taste.

Carl Wilson, Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste (2007)In his book Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste (2007), Carl Wilson tackles this question using another Canadian megastar as his case study: Céline Dion.  Most of the books in Continuum’s 33 1/3 series examine a critically important album: the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street, the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, Prince’s Sign the Times, Talking Heads’ Fear of Music, Elliott Smith’s X/O.  For his entry in the series, Wilson chose Céline Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love because he wanted to answer the question of why “do each of us hate some songs, or the entire output of some musicians, that millions upon millions of other people adore?” (1). He picked her Let’s Talk About Love because it has that Titanic song on it.

And because it gives him an opportunity to create humorous chapter titles: “Let’s Talk About Hate,” “Let’s Talk About Schmaltz,” “Let’s Sing Really Loud,” and “Let’s Talk About Taste” are a few of them.  A music critic for Toronto’s Globe and Mail, Wilson has a sense of humor, but the book is a serious inquiry into taste.  It’s also become one of my favorite books. As anyone who has spoken to me in the last few weeks will tell you, I’ve been evangelizing it — rather as one does upon hearing a particularly wonderful piece of music.  I want to share this book with everyone.  If you have any interest in taste or in music, you really must read it.

The book both is and is not about Céline Dion.  Wilson takes her and her work seriously, but does so as part of his larger inquiry. In “Let’s Talk in French,” he considers her Quebec roots and the province’s particular musical culture — specifically, the conflict between the chanson (the poetic, sometimes political work of “homegrown Gainsbourgs and Dylans (it was mostly guys)” that began in the 60s) and the kétaine ( “tacky” or “hickish,” pre-60s “variety-pop”) (26-27).  In “Let’s Talk About Schmaltz,” he historicizes the term: Yiddish for “chicken fat,” schmaltz comes from vaudeville, and it’s not a bad thing. If a song or performance lacks schmaltz, then it’s too dry. However, if it has too much, then it’s, well, schmaltzy. But schmaltz can be about big emotions… which, of course, are what defines Céline’s music.

I especially enjoy that the book engages with questions of taste — and, yes, Hume, Kant, Bourdieu, & others make appearances here (Wilson has done his homework). In the twenty-first century, we don’t talk much about taste any more. As Wilson puts it, “We don’t commend someone’s good taste because we don’t want to be caught wearing morning coats and waxed mustaches and asking what the devil is up with the wogs. We don’t use bad taste except as a jocular antagonym in which bad means good” (149-150). He’s right. Making judgments on taste feels anachronistic or elitist. We’re much more likely to use “taste” in a fuzzy, laissez-faire way, dismissing (or accommodating) difference by saying “oh, it’s just different tastes” or “well, people have different tastes.”

As a scholar, I’m constantly called upon to appreciate works that may not be to my taste. So, I read in terms of genre, evaluating a work as, say, an excellent example of a horror novel, or a picture book, or a poem, or a graphic novel — or, really, many genres.  (It’s rare to find a work that fits only one genre.)  This mode of art appreciation feels natural to me because, for as long as I’ve been listening to music, I’ve been listening to different kinds of music. The music I remember from earliest childhood includes Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Louis Armstrong, Jimmie Rodgers, and Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass.  My parents must have had !!Going Places!! (1965), because I distinctly remember Alpert and the Tijuana Brass’s version of “Walk, Don’t Run” — I knew that before I knew the Ventures’ original. By about 11 years old, I began to develop my own musical tastes: novelty records (“Weird Al” Yankovic and anything played on the Dr. Demento Show, really), the Beatles, AC/DC, ’50s rock ’n’ roll, and the J. Geils Band (this was 1981-1982). That soon expanded to encompass ’60s R&B, ’80s new wave, jazz, what is now called “classic rock” (but was then AOR), hip-hop (then known as rap), and, well, nearly any type of music.  Here’s a snapshot of my “Top 50 Most Played” in iTunes — or Top 35 because that’s all that fits on the screen (click for larger image).

screen shot of Phil Nel's "Top 50 Most Played" on iTunes, 21 June 2012

That’s quite representative, although it skews towards music I’ve had longer and omits the top two most-played artists in my iTunes: They Might Be Giants (292 songs, excluding covers, solo work, and podcasts), and the Beatles (194 songs, also excluding covers and solo work).

I’ve long prided myself on my eclectic tastes, but Carl Wilson has me pegged.  As he says,

American sociologists Richard Petersen and Roger Kern in the mid-1990s suggested that the upper-class taste model had changed from a “snob” to an “omnivore” ideal, in which the coolest thing for a well-off and well-educated person to do is to consume some high culture along with heaps of popular culture, international art and lowbrow entertainment: a contemporary opera one evening, the roller derby and an Afrobeat show the next.  They speculate that the shift corresponds to a new elite requirement to be able to “code switch” in varied cultural settings, due to multiculturalism and globalization. (96)

So, while I may think my wide-ranging tastes are democratic or open-minded, Wilson would claim that I’ve just adopted the contemporary “omnivore” ideal.  In fairness, Wilson indicts himself, too: “Indeed you could fairly say that my experiment is an attempt to expand my cultural capital among music critics, to gain symbolic status by being the most omnivorous of all” (100).

I can’t think of a better or more succinct education in taste and in popular music than Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love. It’s delightful, fun, and compact (only 164 pages).  If you’re interested in music, you’ll enjoy it.

Even if you listen to Nickelback.

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Syd Hoff at 100

Syd Hoff (1912-2004) would have been 100 this year.  As readers of this blog will know, I corresponded with Syd (here’s one letter & here’s another) while researching my biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss (coming this September)!

In commemoration of Hoff’s centennial, Sarah Lazarovic has created a wonderful cartoon, based on Dina Weinstein’s exhibit at the Miami Public Library (June 14-October 1, 2012).  Here’s the first page of her cartoon (click to enlarge).

Sarah Lazarovic, "Syd Hoff's Cartoon Life," p. 1

The entire comic is on-line at Tablet: A New Read on Jewish Life.  See her website for more of her work.

Syd Hoff posts (on this site):

Syd Hoff links (elsewhere):

Hat tip to Julia Mickenberg for Lazarovic’s comic.

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It’s Good to Be Curious: Mr. Rogers Remixed

Mr Rogers' Neighborhood (title card)

Delightful remix of clips from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, in which (thanks to auto-tune) Fred Rogers extols the virtues of being curious.  John Boswell (a.k.a. MelodySheep) has done a fine job here.  If you’re interested in purchasing a copy of the song (“Garden of Your Mind”), it’s included on his album Remixes for the Soul.

And here are a few media stories on the project:

Hat tip to Josh Pearson (via Facebook).

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Ignorance Is Not a Virtue

Boy wearing a dunce cap sitting in front of a blackboardThe critic who touts his ignorance as a virtue should not have a job as a critic.  Any “news” publication that employs such a person in this capacity is shirking its responsibility to provide well-informed discourse.

So, then.  Why would Time magazine or the New York Times employ Joel Stein?

In his “Adults Should Read Adult Books,” Mr. Stein writes,

The only thing more embarrassing than catching a guy on the plane looking at pornography on his computer is seeing a guy on the plane reading “The Hunger Games.” Or a Twilight book. Or Harry Potter. The only time I’m O.K. with an adult holding a children’s book is if he’s moving his mouth as he reads.

Stein defends his position by admitting that he has not read the works he disparages:

I have no idea what “The Hunger Games” is like. Maybe there are complicated shades of good and evil in each character. Maybe there are Pynchonesque turns of phrase. Maybe it delves into issues of identity, self-justification and anomie that would make David Foster Wallace proud. I don’t know because it’s a book for kids. I’ll read “The Hunger Games” when I finish the previous 3,000 years of fiction written for adults.

And so readers of the Times are left to wonder: why publish the words of a man who has not done his homework?  Is merely showing up now all that’s required to get an “A”?  If I received a paper as poorly argued as this, I would give it a poor grade.  However, having read Mr. Stein’s piece, I wonder if, in future, I should instead suggest that the student submit the paper to the Times‘ “Room for Debate” section.

The New York Times‘ motto used to be “All The News That’s Fit to Print.”  Reading Mr Stein’s piece, one wonders if the paper has changed its motto to “Anything That Fits in Print.” Or perhaps it simply holds its “Room for Debate” writers to a lower standard.

It’s worth having a debate about the aesthetic merits of literary works of all genres and for all age groups. Let’s talk about Suzanne Collins, Thomas Pynchon, Dr. Seuss, J. K. Rowling, Philip Pullman, Virginia Woolf, Charles M. Schulz, Maurice Sendak, Herman Melville, Margaret Wise Brown, Art Spiegelman, Toni Morrison, M.T. Anderson, George Herriman, Shaun Tan, and Langston Hughes.  We should embrace arguments about taste and literary merit.  These are important conversations to have.  We are unlikely to arrive at a consensus on a canon of “great works,” but we can come to a better understanding of the mercurial standards of taste, and our own relationship to those standards.

However, an intelligent conversation requires that we, first, read the works under discussion. Given that Joel Stein fails to meet even so basic a standard as this, his continued employment as a professional journalist is baffling. So, New York Times and Time: surely, you can do better than this?

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To give credit where it’s due, this brief post takes its inspiration from a conversation today on Jane Yolen‘s Facebook page, where Kevin Andrew Murphy wrote: “But the sin of Stein and [Ginia] Bellafante is not that they wrote scathing reviews, but that they wrote scathing reviews preening in their own ignorance and claiming it as a virtue.”

Image from “Who’s wearing the dunce cap? This girl” at LovelyGirls.

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