We were on 82, mountains in silhouette as far as the eye could see and houses scattered across farmland and brush closer in. We were on our way back from horse back riding in Snowmass, and we we tired and ready for lunch and I was staring intently at the cover of Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, which I’d finished the night prior. The book was graffitied with marginalia and underlined passages, shorthand for comprehension and aesthetic savvy–and yet I knew the truth: I did not understand the book. My freshman English teacher had insisted that note-taking and underlining were critical components in active reading and so I’d towed the line dutifully. (Once a rule-follower, always a rule follower.) Yet I remember sitting there in frustrated reflection: Just think, Jen. WHAT could this possibly mean? WHAT is this book about? THINK. Think of one thing. One. I kept coming up dry, fumbling through scattershot scenes from the novel, realizing all at once that if pushed to provide a review, all I’d be able to say was that it was long and impressive and very good. This last point — the perception of the book’s “goodness” — was automatic in my absorption of all cultural phenomena at that age. Opera was good. Mallarme’s poetry was good. Vanity Fair was good. Celine Dion was good. Jackson Pollack was good. “Titanic” was good. Ace of Base was good. Izzy Willy Nilly was good. “A River Runs through It” was good. “Rikki Tikki Tavi” was good. e.e. cummings was good.
I had a close girlfriend at that time who was far more discerning than I was. She knew I liked to read (though I felt increasingly like an imposter for owning that attribute, as I was painfully aware that I was something of an omnivorous book dolt: I read and liked everything), and she had given me Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer as a gift. Unsurprisingly, I’d read and liked it. She’d pranced around in critical analysis like a literary sylph while sitting on the back patio of my childhood home, swatting away mosquitos, pointing out this and that and how she wasn’t particularly fond of his technique here, and I’d sat back in horrified stupefaction, nodding my head like an idiot, hoping she’d not notice I’d contributed nothing to the conversation.
I longed at that age for the gift of discernment.
The feeling of whizzing down 82, groping in the dark for a meaningful observation on my summer reading assignment — hoping, if I am honest, for some little morsel of critical censure I might toss at the book — has become a touchstone experience in my life, as I will never forget the intensity of my frustrated desire for percipience. I wanted desperately to have an opinion. I wanted to be able to point at something and say, “Aha, that is bad craftsmanship” or “I didn’t care for this bit because…” And I think maybe that frustration led me to pursue a degree in literature, and contemplate a career in academia, and start a blog where I can sit and think and exercise my critical faculties.
So it’s mildly amusing to look back at that age nowadays, as I find myself an increasingly tough critic and sometimes I wonder to what end? I admire, for example, the fact that my brilliant father will alternate between reading massive tomes on Winston Churchill and delivering moving speeches on his work in philanthropy to watching re-runs of “Everybody Loves Raymond” with my mother–without self-reproach. “It’s funny,” he says. And it is. And who cares?
I had and still have many friends who operate under the impression that cynicism is cool.* And it is. It’s far cooler to thumb one’s nose than to grin ear to ear in easy, unreflecting acceptance of whatever you are watching or reading, because the former implies intelligence and perspicacity. And I will admit to falling pray to its siren call in college and especially graduate school — essentially a game of who can be more sardonic and for how long? Then again, I’ll never forget a colleague rolling his eyes about something Foucault wrote in a gesture of superior comprehension and thinking, “Oh my dear God, where am I? This is not who I am.”
Somewhere over the course of launching and running my own business, I realized that discernment and dubiety were two very different things, and got to work untangling them and rather fastidiously avoiding the latter. Nowadays, I positively bristle in the face of cynicism and am, I think, highly attuned to ferreting out the cynics from the critics. The cynic scoffs and buffs her nails on her shirt pocket and arranges her face in a frown while the critic leans forward to listen more carefully and unwittingly spills coffee on her blouse. One is cooler but the other is truer.
We are all entitled to opinions, but my challenge to myself in attempting to avoid the unbecoming posture of the cynic has been to go a level deeper than “I did not like this because x.” X — whether it’s the length of the movie, or the amount of violence in it, or the unsatisfying ending, or the strange casting — is not enough. I need to dig beneath x to get to the real heart of the matter. And if my excavations prove unfruitful, I probably don’t understand it or haven’t fully unpacked my reaction to it, and so I sit in silence until I have.
*N.B. My aforementioned friend from high school was not one of them — she was flat out brilliant and I still marvel at her acuity at a young age.
+There is a lot of crossover in this post to my musings on highbrow/lowbrow and intellectual snobbery more generally.
+This post also brought to mind my intense reaction to the famous Teddy Roosevelt quote “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming…”
+If this subject matter is interesting to you, you must read Joseph Epstein’s Snobbery. You should know that he is something of a controversial figure and that the academic elite has spurned him and his work for the past few decades. But it is excellent, ultra-smart writing and I think often of it.
+This denim shirt (the whole look on the model) has a great Ulla Johnson vibe.
+What are you reading right now? I’ll be out with a review of last month’s book club pick soon.
+I have and love these pajamas.
+Some good finds in the Nordstrom sale! My favorite bra, Frame denim, Tod’s loafers. And for kids: hot pink Hunter rainboots, micro’s Patagonia fleece (always a good idea to buy now for next year while on sale), and a Patagonia puffer for mini.