What I Read Over the Holidays

I read a bunch of books over the Christmas break.

First, I read all three editions of Rachel Cusk’s “Outline” trilogy. It’s really something. Very little plot. But a ton of fascinating little nuggets, reflections, sentences, and pieces of dialogue. Look it up if you’re not familiar with Cusk. The premise is you learn about the narrator based on her questions of and dialogue with other people. A ton of highlightable sentences, which I include below. Other books included an obscure theologican’s take on identity politics; Chernow’s exhaustive biography of John D. Rockefeller; and John McPhee’s book on tennis.

1. Outline: Book 1 by Rachel Cusk. Kindle highlights:

A couple of years ago they gave me six months’ sabbatical, six whole months just for writing, and you know what? I put on ten pounds and spent most of the time wheeling the baby around the park. I didn’t produce a single page. That’s writing for you: when you make space for passion, it doesn’t turn up.

I thought often of the chapter in Wuthering Heights where Heathcliff and Cathy stare from the dark garden through the windows of the Lintons’ drawing room and watch the brightly lit family scene inside. What is fatal in that vision is its subjectivity: looking through the window the two of them see different things, Heathcliff what he fears and hates and Cathy what she desires and feels deprived of. But neither of them can see things as they really are.

Writers need to hide in bourgeois life like ticks need to hide in an animal’s fur: the deeper they’re buried the better.

It was important, my neighbour said, to remember to enjoy yourself along the way: in a sense, this had become his philosophy of life these days. His third wife, he said, had been so puritanical that he sometimes felt no amount of pit-stops and pauses would make up for the years he spent with her, in which every event was faced head-on, unanaesthetised, and every little pleasure interrogated and either deemed unnecessary or else written down – with tax added on, he said – in a notebook she kept with her at all times for the purpose.

The idea that you should love your enemies is patently ridiculous. It is entirely a religious proposition. To say that you love what you hate and what hates you is the same as admitting you have been defeated, that you accept your oppression and are just trying to make yourself feel better about it.

‘Once I too bought my son a dog,’ she said in a shocked and quavering voice, ‘when he was a little child. He loved it madly, and while it was still a puppy it was run down before his eyes by a car in the street. He picked up its body and carried it back into the apartment, crying more wildly than I have ever known a person to cry. His character was completely ruined by that experience,’ she said. ‘He is now a cold and calculating man, concerned only with what he can get out of life. I myself put my trust in cats,’ she said, ‘who at least can settle the question of their own survival, and while they might lack the capacity for power and influence, and might be said to subsist on jealousies and a degree of selfishness, also possess uncanny instincts and a marked excellence in matters of taste.

2. Outline: Book 2 by Rachel Cusk

[On losing his gf’s beloved dog] He was standing at a busy intersection on Richmond Avenue. He had one glimpse of her, streaking like a brown arrow uptown through the traffic, and then she had completely vanished. It was strange, he said, but standing there on the sidewalk with the great grey chasms of Toronto’s streets extending away to every side of him and the leash dangling from his hand, he had felt for the first time that he was at home: the feeling of having unwittingly caused an irreversible change, of his failure being the force that broke new ground, was, he realised standing there, the deepest and most familiar thing he knew. By failing he created loss, and loss was the threshold to freedom: an awkward and uncomfortable threshold, but the only one he had ever been able to cross; usually, he said, because he was shoved across it as a consequence of the events that had brought him there. He had returned to Diane’s apartment and waited while the rooms grew dark, the leash still in his hand, until she got home. She knew instantly what had happened; and strange as it may sound, Gerard said, their relationship began at that point. He had destroyed the thing she loved most; she, in her turn, had exposed him to failure through expectations he was unable to fulfil. Without meaning to, they had found one another’s deepest vulnerabilities: they had arrived, by this awful shortcut, at the place where for each of them a relationship usually ended, and set out from there.

I said it seemed to me that most marriages worked in the same way that stories are said to do, through the suspension of disbelief. It wasn’t, in other words, perfection that sustained them so much as the avoidance of certain realities.

I think it might have something to do with paying attention not to what comes most naturally but to what you find most difficult. We are so schooled, he said, in the doctrine of self-acceptance that the idea of refusing to accept yourself becomes quite radical.

It inculcated in Julian the belief that he was special, because the fact of his existence was made noticeable in everything that happened. And that fact was becoming increasingly unbearable to his stepfather, who only didn’t hit him, Julian now realised, because he knew that if he started he wouldn’t be able to stop.

He wasn’t obliged to get his family’s permission but he wanted it anyway, because it wasn’t enough for it to be simply his truth, his point of view. Point of view, he said, is like those couples who cut the sofa in two when they get divorced: there’s no sofa any more, but at least you can call it fair.

He’s often been called brave for writing about it, but in fact, once he’d done it once, he’d blab his story to anyone who’d listen. You only need one thing, he said, you only need the door to be left unlocked once. For a long time, after he’d moved to London and started the process of becoming himself, he was a bit of a mess. He was like a cupboard rammed full with junk: when he opened the door everything fell out; it took time to reorganise himself. And the blabbing, the telling, was the messiest thing of all: getting control of language was getting control of anger and shame, and it was hard, hard to turn it around, to take the mess of experience and make something coherent out of it

he often caught himself living in the mistaken belief that transformation was the same thing as progress. Things could look very different while remaining the same: time could seem to have altered everything, without changing the thing that needed to change.

the story of loneliness is much longer than the story of life. In the sense of what most people mean by living, she said. Without children or partner, without meaningful family or a home, a day can last an eternity: a life without those things is a life without a story, a life in which there is nothing – no narrative flights, no plot developments, no immersive human dramas – to alleviate the cruelly meticulous passing of time.

3. Outbook: Book 3 by Rachel Cusk. Kindle highlights:

despite our nostalgia for the past and for history, we would quickly find ourselves unable to live there for reasons of discomfort, since the defining motivation of the modern era, he said, whether consciously or not, is the pursuit of freedom from strictures or hardships of any kind.

‘More than anything,’ he said, ‘people dislike being made to feel stupid, and if you arouse those feelings, you do so at your own cost.

Because they were conscious of her, everyone made an effort to say witty and interesting things. Yet because she didn’t conceal herself the conversation was never real: it was the conversation of people imitating writers having a conversation, and the morsels she fed on were lifeless and artificial, as well as being laid directly at her feet, so that the spectacle of her satisfaction was artificial too.

‘I guess it reminded me of having a kid,’ she said finally. ‘You survive your own death,’ she added, ‘and then there’s nothing left to do except talk about it.’

‘I admit,’ she said finally, ‘that I took pleasure in telling you about my life and in making you feel envious of me. I was proud of it. I remember thinking, yes, I’ve avoided making a mess of things, and it seemed to me that it was through hard work and self-control that I had, rather than luck. But it was important not to look as if I was boasting. It always felt then as if I had a secret,’

Friends of his had advised him that if he wanted to make it as a creative writer, he should stop savaging other people’s work, but you might as well ask a bird not to fly or a cat not to hunt; and besides, what would his poetry be worth if he wrote it while living in the same zoo as all the other denatured animals, safe but not free?

There was a word in his language, I said, that was hard to translate but that could be summed up as a feeling of homesickness even when you are at home, in other words as a sorrow that has no cause.

4. The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution by Carl Trueman

A theologian presents a perspective on the rise of therapy culture and individualism and the cost of Christian values he holds dear. I disagreed with most of the points here but it was interesting to dip into the perspective of someone who thinks very, very differently from me. Highlights:

Take, for example, the issue of job satisfaction, something that is significant for most adults. My grandfather left school at fifteen and spent the rest of his working life as a sheet metal worker in a factory in Birmingham, the industrial heartland of England. If he had been asked if he found satisfaction in his work, there is a distinct possibility he would not even have understood the question, given that it really reflects the concerns of psychological man’s world, to which he did not belong. But if he did understand, he would probably have answered in terms of whether his work gave him the money to put food on his family’s table and shoes on his children’s feet. If it did so, then yes, he would have affirmed that his job satisfied him. His needs were those of his family, and in enabling him to meet them, his work gave him satisfaction.

And economic man thus gives way to the latest player on the historical stage, that which Rieff dubs “psychological man”—a type characterized not so much by finding identity in outward directed activities as was true for the previous types but rather in the inward quest for personal psychological happiness.

even now in our sexually libertarian world, certain sexual taboos remain in place, pedophilia being perhaps the most obvious. Not all expressions of individuality, not all behaviors that bring about a sense of inner psychological happiness for the agent, are regarded as legitimate. Whether any given individual notices it or not, society still imposes itself on its members and shapes and corrals their behavior.

Emphasis on what we might call the “right to psychological happiness” of the individual will also have some obvious practical effects. For example, language will become much more contested than in the past, because words that cause “psychological harm” will become problematic and will need to be policed and suppressed.

The intuitive moral structure of our modern social imaginary prioritizes victimhood, sees selfhood in psychological terms, regards traditional sexual codes as oppressive and life denying, and places a premium on the individual’s right to define his or her own existence.

5. Titan: Biography of John D. Rockefeller by Ron Chernow

This is a massive book and deep look at one incredible American entrepreneur. Did not know how religious Rockefeller was, among so many other things.

This marriage, consummated under false pretenses, fused the lives of two highly dissimilar personalities, setting the stage for all the future heartache, marital discord, and chronic instability that would so powerfully mold the contradictory personality of John D. Rockefeller.

Throughout his life, he expended considerable energy on tricks and schemes to avoid plain hard work. But he possessed such brash charm and rugged good looks—he was nearly six feet tall, with a broad chest, high forehead, and thick auburn beard covering a pugnacious jaw—that people were instantly beguiled by him.

Growing up as a miniature adult, burdened with duties, he developed an exaggerated sense of responsibility that would be evident throughout his life. He learned to see himself as a reluctant savior, taking charge of troubled situations that needed to be remedied.

there’s no doubt that Rockefeller’s achievement arose from the often tense interplay between the two opposing, deeply ingrained tendencies of his nature—his father’s daring and his mother’s prudence—yoked together under great pressure.

When John was a child, Bill would urge him to leap from his high chair into his waiting arms. One day, he dropped his arms, letting his astonished son crash to the floor. “Remember,” Bill lectured him, “never trust anyone completely, not even me.”

Rockefeller never regretted his apprenticeship at Hewitt and Tuttle and, like many self-made men, lavished a retrospective tenderness on his early years.

As John knew, his father’s style as a banker followed a grimly manic pattern of conviviality giving way to Scrooge-like severity.

The year revealed both his finest and most problematic qualities as a businessman: his visionary leadership, his courageous persistence, his capacity to think in strategic terms, but also his lust for domination, his messianic self-righteousness, and his contempt for those shortsighted mortals who made the mistake of standing in his way.

Where Rockefeller differed most from his fellow moguls was that he wanted to be both rich and virtuous and claim divine sanction for his actions.

A sweet, good-natured woman, Cettie nevertheless had a strong didactic side that could verge on fanaticism. As she once confessed to a neighbor, “I am so glad my son has told me what he wants for Christmas, so now it can be denied him.”

Rockefeller placed a premium on internal harmony and tried to reconcile his contending chieftains. A laconic man, he liked to canvass everyone’s opinion before expressing his own and then often crafted a compromise to maintain cohesion. He was always careful to couch his decisions as suggestions or questions.

6. Levels of the Game by John McPhee

As I’m learning to play tennis more and more, I’d like to learn more about the history of the game. I actually haven’t read any McPhee — I’ll remedy that more in the future — but for now I dipped into his short take on the Arthur Ashe vs. Clark Graebner match and related issues related to race in tennis. One quote: “A person’s tennis game begins with his nature and background and comes out through his motor mechanisms into shot patterns and characteristics of play. If he is deliberate, he is a deliberate tennis player; and if he is flamboyant, his game probably is, too.”

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