Reading the Zeitgeist: Lincoln in the Bardo

I don’t tend to follow trends. I get curious when something enters the zeitgeist, but that curiosity doesn’t often extend to invested interest. Weirdly, this doesn’t happen with movies – I’m down with the zeitgeist for movies (I’m so here for you, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2). It does, however, happen with books.

Every year, out of the thousands of titles that come out, a handful become zeitgeist books. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Gone GirlThe Girl on the Train. The Girl with All the Gifts…apparently, unless you’re Andy Weir, a book’s chances of getting lucky go up exponentially if “girl” is in the title.

When I was a bookseller, I read the zeitgeist books because people expect indie booksellers to have read them, and I think that’s only fair. But when I left bookstores and became a writer, I started digging into backlists for research and never really emerged. On the one hand, this suits me fine, because there’s a freaking ton of great books that go un(der)noticed, so dipping into that pool has a treasure hunting quality to it. On the other hand, it means that I miss out on one of the most exciting things about being a reader – discussing a popular or controversial book with a whole lot of other readers.

It’s a community thing – one that working in bookstores and libraries always facilitated for free. Unfortunately, I’ve been out of the game long enough now to have forgotten how lovely it is. It wasn’t until I scanned the media coverage on George Saunders’s debut novel, Lincoln in the Bardo that I realized how much I’d missed it. Whether I stopped because my job no longer required it, or because I got lazy, or contrary, or I just fell out of touch, I don’t know, but there’s something vital about experiencing some books in real time, first hand.

Lincoln in the Bardo has prompted discussion on multiple levels – not what it felt like to read it, but actual critical discussion that made me all nostalgic for my MA days. It’s prompted discussions about history, memory, structure, interpretation, meaning and form. People have engaged it emotionally and cerebrally, and I find that pretty exciting. So I decided to read the book.

Enough has been written about Lincoln in the Bardo that anything I say will either be redundant or trite. What I will say is that the attention it’s receiving – both blazingly positive and constructively critical – is fully deserved. Some people love the structural departure from traditional prose. Other people feel it would have worked better in a less experimental form. Personally, while I felt it had some minor weaknesses, those weaknesses were more than compensated for by the sheer emotional and artistic force of the book as a reading experience.

Reading is, at it’s very best, a visceral, connective experience. It unsettles and unmoors you. It makes you feel and question. It makes you think and discuss and engage in debate. It opens you to experiences you will never have. It builds understanding and empathy. It breeds curiosity. A book can pry you out of your emotional, mental and circumstantial shell. Judging by that standard, Lincoln in the Bardo succeeds, hands down.

That’s a really exciting thing, and it’s something I would’ve missed out on if the cranky little old lady inside me had shaken her fist at George Saunders as he walked across my lawn. What a loss that would’ve been – to experience the explosion of a book on the scene, and to discuss it with people who had also just read it, and loved it, or hated it, or not gotten it, or wanted to throw it across the room.

There’s community in the zeitgeist, and if the zeitgeist brings a book like Lincoln in the Bardo to Walmart and Target, all the better. The zeitgeist isn’t something to shake your fist at and slink away from. It’s something to engage.

On Over-Education, or The Economics of Thought

To round out this initial series of introductory posts, I want to write a bit about education, or rather, over-education.

Education in the U.S. is a tangled and highly politicized topic, and one that I hope to tackle in later posts. Right now though, I want to focus on the individual’s relationship to education – specifically higher education and the pursuit of advanced degrees – and because I’m the individual that I know best, I’m going to look at this through a fairly personal lens.

As a caveat, I just want to state that I realize that I’m coming at this from a fairly privileged place.

I have two advanced degrees, neither of which has led to my chosen career. Master’s degrees are costly, and mine are no different. The price is paid in time and effort, in the wobbling balance between work and life, and in money – never forget money.

I chose to pay these costs, not once but twice, and I take responsibility for those choices. But given the costs that I chose to pay, I would have expected the lack of concrete returns to distress me. And there are days when it does – deeply.

It would have been nice to see a career rise directly out of the educational foundation I laid. After all, the age of the gentleman scholar is over, and though I am no gentleman, I have scholarly predilections and a fair amount of training in that regard, which is why I can’t fully commit to bitterness at the lack of tangible returns. Although I’m distressed by the broken promise, economically speaking, of higher education, I did not come away from these degrees empty handed. Far from it.

In exchange for my time and money, I acquired the ability to analyze and critique, to research, to write critically, to communicate clearly, to document and to argue a point. I strengthened my natural tendency to wonder and find out. In short, I learned to think for myself, because while I was deciding that Derrida was a fraud and post-modernism a house of cards, while I was learning that cataloguing and classification have become ironically complicated, given their original purpose was to simplify the storage of knowledge, I was exercising the muscle of analytical dispassion. There is an intense amount of value in that, though the cost is high.

Would I have chosen to undertake two advanced degrees had I known that the gains would be of the intangible, personal sort? No. I would not. But I’m grateful that I did. My degrees haven’t yielded conventional goods, but they have brought me to a better, more thoughtful self. It’s a luxury I didn’t intend, but one I’m lucky to have had.