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Tag: Alain de Botton

Alain De Botton’s THE NEWS: A User’s Manual

by Kati Heng

9780307379122  THE NEWS by Alain de Botton

British author Alain De Botton has made a name for himself writing essays and non-fiction manuals on how to use, appreciate, and get the most out of everything. Past topics of study include travel (The Art of Travel), religion (Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion), Proust (How Proust Can Change Your Life), and even love (Kiss and Tell, How to Think More About Sex). Botton’s tradition of explaining to how-tos on topics you thought you already knew how to utilize continues with his latest release, The News: A User’s Manual.

For starters, yes, we all know how to read a newspaper or, and even a 3-year-old can watch 60 minutes. What Botton proves is that simply scanning the pages does not mean we are using the news effectively. There’s no blame on either side – it’s not our fault we can’t quite appreciate the news of every quarrel in Israel, nor is it the fault of the news source that its viewers are missing the full impact of their stories. That’s where The News comes in. Throughout the pages, Botton provides a way to navigate through the different sections, from the meaty, world news and political pieces to the Sunday paper’s travel and entertainment pieces. There’s even advice for how to garner useful knowledge from a slushy celeb gossip rag – literally, anything that could be considered news, Botton will help you get the most out of.

Here’s a quick peek at some of the ways Botton will open your eyes and alert to what you’ve been missing while checking the daily news:

–       Political News: Journalists find it their responsibility to keep an eye on Congress, to make sure the people in charge aren’t abusing their powers, to keep the powerful in check. That said: they report much more on the faults they uncover, point out the sex scandals and hypocritical acts these people perform to remind the mighty that their deeds do not go unseen. This is a good thing, even if it does not make for the most enticing read (which is okay on the part of the reader).

–       World News: When we see news about foreign countries, it’s almost always bad. “200 Dead in Egypt,” “French Diplomat Caught in Sex Scandal,” “Congo Faces Humanitarian Crisis,” and so on. While it is important for us as citizens of the same planet to be aware of these happenings, we are almost never informed about the good things that are happening in these countries, or even the mundane. We aren’t getting their wedding announcements – just the news of their terrorist attacks, which is something to keep in mind.

–       Financial News: Don’t be intimidated if you flip to an article and see an un-understandable graph. Even the experts read the surrounding story to fully grasp the graph’s implications. You’re not alone.

–       Celebrity News: Human beings have it in their nature to look up to role models. Although we (or at least I) may never understand why the news reports on Kim Kardashian, it is important to remember that these people have done something that makes them a role model to someone, whether that thing may be submerging oneself in acting, balancing a family and a starring role in a sitcom, or simply wearing an amazing outfit while grocery shopping. Someone is finding advice and a role model from these pages.

There are plenty more ways in which Botton both justifies the news and confirms that we the reader are not crazy, ignorant or uncaring for skipping certain articles or sections as a whole.  What this all boils down to is simple, really: The News: A User’s Manual is a quick, fun and insightful read that will truly help you make the most of your newspaper subscription.

Human Condition of the Father and/or Ghastly, Good.

by Weston Cutter

Otherwise Known as the Human Condition by Geoff Dyer

I mean this in the best way: I’d read just about anything by Dyer (or anyway would try to read anything possible by him—I picked through Out of Sheer Rage and just couldn’t ever find my way to hang with it [this may or may not have had anything to do with the fact that I’d read no Lawrence]), but I don’t think I’d want to spend a ton of time with him. A weekend, okay, maybe 4-5 days, but I don’t think I’d want to be super close thereafter. Understand: I laughed as much reading Dyer’s Otherwise Known as I’ve laughed at anything recently (Fey’s Bossypants included), but this is, let’s not ignore, a book in which the author, in an essay regarding Def Leppard, puts on a pajama jacket and accosts a South Korean hotel waitstaffer. Note the emphasises phrase: dude owns a pajama jacket. Dude wears one.

This, of course, is the entirety of the spit-ball portion of the review: the reason one reads Dyer, in fact, is because of the pajama jacket—both that he’d own one and that he’d bother writing it into the scene. Dyer is somehow a perfect combination of de Botton and Hornby, but dude’s smart in ways neither of the other two are (there’s no way to dance out of that not looking like a dick, though I’m not trying to say anything about de Botton’s smarts, or Hornby’s; it’s just that Dyer’s dry, learned, snooty-but-omnivorous mind is rare—I can think of no writer whose high/lowbrow tendencies are so easily, seamlessly meshed). For instance: Dyer writes evocatively and excitingly on jazz, which is as hard to write well about as anything I know of (and not only does he write well on just jazz, dude writes well on one specific tiny jazz label, ECM, which label anybody can tell you is eminently worth coverage in long, rapturous essays). Here’s why you need to pick up Otherwise Known (aside from the fact that it’s Graywolf, therefore obviously): it’s maybe the most casually smart book I can think of from the last 3 years. Not casually brilliant (I think it is, but let’s not frieght the thing too heavily from the start)—casually smart. Wherever you’re going in the next few months, whatever you’re doing, I’ll bet money you’ll be better off with Dyer’s voice in yr head, his words at yr nightstand.

Reading My Father by Alexandra Styron

Just as good as all the reviews said it was. Also: one of the most weirdly nostalgic books of late—just because her dad was such a monumental guy, yet what writers are presently at work who’d maybe even conceivably be spoken of with such critical regard while they’re working? And Franzen’s not an answer: he’s not a towering intellect and great prose stylist. He’s just not. Hopefully Eugenides‘ and Sullivan’s upcoming fall releases will put them both at the forefront.

Regardless: you owe it to yourself to read Styron’s fantastic book about her father, and good Christ does she write good, generous sentences. The book, let’s not kid around, has its fair share of shadow, but I dare anyone not to feel the overwhelming love suffusing the thing, and to be almost knocked sideways by it.

The Good and the Ghastly by James Boice

I’ve been reading Boice since I caught a story of his ages back in McSwny’s I think 12, I’m not sure. Let’s be clear from the start: Boice is a monster, as promising a prose stylist as, say, Blake Butler or whoever else you’re most excited about at present. Boice’s style is, yes, of the declarative comma-free sort, though his sentences quite often pick up and pack a sort of accretive punch (not always: I like Boice’s stuff a lot, but I think his best books are still very much in him). Here’s what I sort of mean: “One day he sat on the sofa and watched her play Visa Classical Music Piece #3 for him. He watched her become lost in the music. He studied every contour and glow in her face, as if to confine it forever to memory. When she was done he was near tears.” By the by: The Good and the Ghastly‘s a post-apocalyptic gangster story set a millenium hence in which Visa owns everything. The story itself: yes, and buy into it, and be there. But you’re coming for the words themselves, for the style.

But look at that quoted bit above: it’s that one moment, of him studying “every contour and glow in her face.” That’s why you should buy this book and keep an eye on Boice: because, yes, sometimes the sentences don’t impart the desired energy or speed or propulsion, but some of the quick zigs he executes—seemingly with tremendous ease, as natural as someone gulps cold water on a hot day—are as quietly wow-inducing as anything you’re likely to come by. Check him now.

Tom Bissell + Video Games + Just Read It

by Weston Cutter

Tom Bissell‘s one of those writers I presume I’ll always be more-than-moderately interested in: he’s midwestern, which carries significant weight, but he also comes off as very real, very like someone who, if I knew him, I’d relate to and/or be friends with (his first book, Chasing the Sea, covers the time he spent in the Peace Corps in Uzbekistan, which period was prematurely terminated by Bissell because of all sorts of tolerable-only-in-hindsight factors, all of which factors he lets the reader in which [of course] does plenty to generate an electric tendon of trust from the reader to him). Plus Bissell’s like five years older than I and is probably the most overtly DFW-influenced young writer presently going, which is not at all a criticism: it’s at least partly from Wallace that Bissell’s picked up some of the here-I-am-in-full-warty-glory moves, plus Bissell’s damn, damn, damn funny (from [on p. 28] sincerely hoping a certain group of programmers would go to hell to [can’t find the page–it’s in the second-half] creating a binary metric to measure a video game’s terminal dorkiness, which metric is simply whether he’ll turn the game off if a woman he may conceivably see naked in the future walks into the room while he’s playing the game). All of which is long and cumbersome, but I hope it merely establishes that Tom Bissell fundamentally Matters, which most contemporary readers know anyway, but there it is (even if, like me, you cringe at titles which defend something’s existence or purport to explain why something matters).

Yes: Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives features a subtitle which claims the book will address Why Video Games Matter. Let’s excuse this subtitle blunder and let’s get into the other big thing Bissell’s writing shares with Wallace’s, which is a focus on those things which are compellingly overwhelming, those things which tempt us to give ourselves over fully, completely, massively (again, Bissell was doing this in Chasing the Sea—dude attempted to give himself, at various times, to the Peace Corps, a woman, and various other assortments; I haven’t read The Father of All Things, only read the piece from Harper’s or the New Yorker or whichever that ended up being part of the whole, but I’d guess it attempts to emotionally work a similar seam). In Extra Lives, Bissell documents the (to this reader) seemingly just catatonically satisfying aspects of slipping into the world of a video game.

That’s actually not fair to Bissell and what he’s doing, and here I’ve got to come clean on my own video game past: I played Super Mario Bros and still find myself irregularly humming the theme song, can still remember that in world 2-2 you can warp to 4-1, then from 4-2 to 8-2; I played Contra and, sure, did the up-up-down-down and 30’d my way to winning the game. Thereafter (aside from the month a roommate purchased an XBox and Star Wars: Obi Wan and we spent the next two weeks playing and beating [over and over] the game), I haven’t played games. I’ve watched friends get very sucked into Halo and a host of other first-person shooters whose names I’ve forgotten. More than all that, though, I can still very distinctly recall driving home from college one weekend, a weekend which capped some week during which hallmates and I played (not seriously: just goof played, like kids) Grand Theft Auto II, and I remember coming to a red stoplight and idling and then, looking around, thinking I could totally take that guy in the next car. As anyone who’s played GTA knows, you can rip folks clean from their vehicles and drive felonly away, swerving to yr heart’s content. At that stoplight, at that moment, I was taking video game thinking into my day-to-day life. I remember thinking that, and remember thinking that I didn’t want to go much further into that rabbit hole.

Bissell doesn’t cover that aspect of games, necessarily, the ways and times in which they begin to infect and color regular supra-televisual existence (though through a sort of emotional association, he talks of the period in which he was simultaneously addicted to cocaine and Grand Theft Auto IV, which double addiction seems not the least bit coincidental), but good lord is he the guide you’ve been looking for if you want more understanding of the world of video games. To this outsider, games seem potentially satisfying in a variety of ways: as platforms of storytelling/narrative, as venue for the massive joy of motor control and synchronously mashed buttons (I’m not being ironic: anyone who has repeatedly failed and then finally succeeded in passing a difficult level in any game can attest to this thrill), as gloriously immoral realms into which we’re allowed to dump socially unacceptable aspects of self. Bissell’s good on 3/3 of these aspects (the physical stuff’s touched lightly, but, if only for arguing that mashing one specific button to launch a certain ordnance is as counterintuitive as using the volume button on a car’s radio to roll down the window, he gets a solid 10/10).

Extra Lives is so good because of how deeply into the sort of esoterica of video game design Bissell goes. In chapter after chapter (each chapter mostly covers a single game, or, at least, a single video game developer, and, because at least one of these chapters was first published in a high-brow-ish magazine, that/those chapter[s] are tonally at significant variance with, say, the chapter written in second-person about taking skull-shots at zombies in the first Resident Evil, and that’s the only book-as-book criticism anyone could conceivably lob), Bissell sketches, without ever being explicit, that the pleasure in most games, as they’re presently created and played, has to do with the tension the gamer can possibly exploit between the confines of the game’s design (i.e. the locked-in nature of certain narrative aspects) and the open-endedness the games must now, 25 years after, for instance, Contra, offer gamers. This is, roughly, de Botton territory—in the amazing The Architecture of Happiness, he talked about architectural beauty as being the tension between chaos and order, and, given that video games are constructed things, it’s fair to think of them necessarily having to work through the same tension (let’s also note that de Botton, who seems like a significant dick, is hardly the first to sketch such a delineation).

The cool part? There is no answer to this tension, at least in video games: there is no right or wrong. It seems clear that, given that Bissell ends with a consideration of Grand Theft Auto IV (a game which was not as large [or the internal world of the game was not as large, geographically] as earlier iterations of the game), that the question of whether or not the worlds of video games can just keep getting bigger and bigger—giving way to more and more inherent chaos, more and more entropy—is already settled: they can’t. They fail. That said, in GTAIV, there’s a scene (apparently) in which the character’s interaction with his enemies is too simple, too easy to parse (and therefore beat), so there’s a lower limit, a clear amount of control the game has to offer the gamer.

What happens as Bissell considers the interior philosophical contours of this issue is that, fundamentally, he ends up shining several flashlights not toward the question Do Video Games Matter but What Are Video Games For? It is, of course, an unanswerable question: there is, for Bissell, no ur-game, nothing so perfect that all other ideas should be scrapped and everything tailored from some Davidic line of games. Still, it’s impossible to read this book and not 1) really, really want to play video games, and 2) understand some of the most critical aspects of successful video games (if you’re willing to believe Bissell’s a reliable narrator/player, which is your decision, of course, but the dude’s bona fides, spelled out in the intro, are pretty damn smell-test proof). Shockingly (or not), at least for someone pretty uppity about how vital and rad and critical books are (especially nerdishly tough books, like poetry and postmodern fiction), the necessary ingredients for successful games are the same as those for, really, any other art: like the best novels or poems or movies, they’ve got to offer some aspect of meeting expectations/control (an enemy has to be consistent, can’t suddenly double in size or become immume) while offering us surprise/chaos (the enemy could be joined halfway through a fight). The question, of course, that Bissell brings up more than once but which he can’t possibly answer, is not even necessarily articulable, but it’s got to do with actual real-life living vs. video-game living, and the values of each, the attendant differences. If you’re human, and you’ve got a brain, you’re looking for books which, like the best video games, give you the pleasure and nutrients you expect while offering a whole quanta of stuff you may not’ve previously guessed would be dosed to you; unless you’ve got your reading list planned out books and books in advance, you now know what to read next. And, if you haven’t read any Bissell before, start anywhere: dude’s taking big swings through all sorts of fields.


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