Rand Richards Cooper

Rand Richards Cooper is Commonweal's contributing editor. 

By this author

Bibliophilia... and Phobia

I’m staring at an enticing and intimidating pile of packages on the floor of my study. It’s enticing because those packages contain the sixteen novels that are finalists for an annual fiction contest called The Tournament of Books. It’s intimidating because I have to read those novels – all sixteen of them -- in the next six weeks. That’s the deadline for a ToB discussion I’m joining on Connecticut Public Radio’s Colin McEnroe Show.

I did the show last year (you can listen here), and it was both fun and productive. Inevitably in reading a basket of novels, you encounter writers you haven’t read before, and if you really like one, you gratefully begin that strange, charmed, one-way relationship with a writer whose fiction you fall for: this kindred spirit you know only through his or her words.

I love books; they’re both my profession and my passion. Over the years I’ve written two of them and bought thousands. You know the kind of house where every scrap of wall space hosts a bookshelf? That’s our house. But too much of a good thing can become, well, too much, even for the booklover; and every now and then I feel overwhelmed, not merely by the number of books I have to read, but by the number of books, period. At these moments I’m afflicted by an acute form of bibliophobia.

The Calm Person in the Room

Two Sundays ago I was watching football when my wife, who had taken the dogs out for a walk, came rushing in. “There’s an opossum that got hit by a car. It’s just sitting there in the middle of the road. It’s awful.”

Before we could stop her, our nine-year-old daughter dashed outside. Empathetic love of animals is a fundamental aspect of her makeup, and she came tearing back a minute later, frothing over with distress. She was in that self-tormenting mode where a child is horrified but can’t not look. The drama of life and death is too mesmerizing.

I put on my coat and went outside. The opossum sat in the street, upright and still, like a stuffed toy. Some of its guts had spilled out and puddled on the pavement. Blood dribbled from its mouth. But the creature was fully conscious – sitting there looking dumbfounded, as if it couldn’t comprehend what had happened or what to do. If you approached, it opened its mouth, showing its small pointy teeth, and hissed. Every minute or so a car would approach, and inevitably it would stop and the driver would roll down his window and stare.

“Dad,” my daughter sobbed from the porch, “do something!”

The Inner Bern

The other morning in my neighborhood I saw one of those classic Causemobiles – a beat-up old Nissan whose back end was plastered with political bumper-stickers. Down with NSA Spying! Fight Hunger. End Global Warming. Plant Seeds and Sing Songs. Coexist! Namaste. This particular Causemobile clearly steered left rather than right.

Two other stickers, affixed next to one another, caught my attention: Bernie Sanders 2016; and Capitalism – We Can Do Better! The juxtaposition points to a crux in the Democratic Party and its presidential hopes. An article in the Times last week noted the inroads Sanders has made in Hillary’s position, reporting that the suddenly-nervous Clinton campaign is ready to play the socialism card, “highlighting his socialist beliefs to warn that he would be an electoral disaster who would frighten swing voters and send Democrats in tight congressional and governor’s races to defeat.” That tactic relies on the ever-useful electability issue, specifically the mainstream Democrat worry that no self-proclaimed socialist could ever pass muster with enough Americans to win. “The Republicans,” said Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri, a Hillary supporter, “can’t wait to run an ad with a hammer and sickle.” In a similar vein Jonathan Chait, writing online for New York Magazine, warns that Bernie’s “self-identification as a socialist poses an enormous obstacle, as Americans respond to ‘socialism’ with overwhelming negativity,” and concludes “it seems bizarre for Democrats to risk losing the presidency by embracing a politically radical doctrine that stands zero chance of enactment even if they win.”

A Sisyphean Task

I remember my dismay in 9th grade English when the first book we turned to was Mythology, Edith Hamilton’s collection of Greek myths. The paperback was black with a photo of a statue on the cover. A glance inside revealed strange little stories of fantastical monsters and characters with unpronounceable names. Almost instantly a sleepy malaise overtook me. Could anything, other possibly than the Bible, be more boring? Merely looking at the statue on the cover, I felt that awful museum feeling--as our teacher, Mrs. Whitlock, droned on about myths and their importance to Western civilization.  

Needless to say, I feel differently now, grateful both to Dame Edith and to Mrs. Whitlock for stocking my mind with useful–indeed foundational--references, tales, predicaments and metaphors. Where would I be, who would I be, without having read the Odyssey and the Iliad--or Shakespeare, or Milton, or the Bible? Or the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address, for that matter, or Whitman and Dickens and Hemingway and Frost?

These personal questions raise a larger, cultural one: what is it that we need to know–and need each other to know--by way of shared cultural and literary reference? And who is this “we,” exactly? I think about this when a copyeditor at the New York Times, where I write about restaurants, questions a reference I’ve made. One time I praised a restaurant’s excellent burger as “the Platonic ideal of the hamburger.”  The editor struck the reference; readers, he said, “wouldn’t get it.” Now, I can see objecting to overkill in a writer’s invoking Plato to describe a hamburger. But to say that readers won’t even know what I’m referring to – that they won’t understand that “Platonic ideal” means the very essence of a thing, the perfect form of it?

These little snafus of reference unsettle me. Some months back I was reading a New Yorker article in which a German politician was described as alienating people with his “Panzer-like personality” – after which the writer (or more likely editor) felt required to add, “referring to the attack tanks deployed by the German army in World War II.”  And I thought, really? Does the typical New Yorker reader not know what a Panzer was?

Charlie Hustle and the Hall of Shame

Now that non-baseball fans, having read the title of this post, have left the ballpark, the rest of us can talk turkey about Pete Rose and the Hall of Fame. What do you think -- should he get in?

I’ll say up front that I was never a Pete Rose fan. Far from it, actually. His sins, in ascending order of gravity, were that he played in the National League; that he captained the Cincinnati Reds team that beat my Red Sox in 1975 World Series; and, worst of all to me as a sports-obsessed kid, that he epitomized the opposite of cool. All that running down to first base after ball four – how dorky, how strivey, how utterly uncool could you be? Charlie Hustle, aka Mr. Square.

As an adult, having at long last grasped that there’s more to success than being cool, I have to admire any batter with the dedication to squeeze every last drip out of the probabilistic grapefruit by always running to first after ball four, on the slim chance of a passed ball. Still, and probably in keeping with my childhood affections, I’ve been a staunch supporter of the “Keep Rose Out” school of Cooperstown theology, ever since the league banned him in 1989 for gambling on games.

But now I’m wavering.

A 2015 Movie Roundup

The end of a year conduces to retrospection—in our lives, and in cinema too. All six movies I watched between Christmas and New Year’s Day were about looking back: to historical eras; to the protagonists’ pasts; or, for us, to our own pasts as moviegoers, via film franchises that began decades ago, when everyone was young.

Changes

I was stunned today to go onto the Times website and see that David Bowie had died. I knew that Bowie had a new, jazz-inflected album out, called Blackstar, yet hadn’t known that he had pancreatic cancer and was dying. Neither, apparently, had the author of the New Yorker review of Blackstar that came out two days ago. And the Arts section of the Times—today—has a blurb, titled "Saluting David Bowie at Carnegie Hall," announcing a March 31 concert honoring him with a house band of longtime collaborators, surprise guests, etc. Not an event in honor of him because he died; he was supposed to be there. The article's lede: "It's a good time to be David Bowie. He just celebrated his sixty-ninth birthday, released an album, and has a show running off Broadway." So Bowie must have been keeping his illness secret. A big sigh, to think about all that involves.

Intermittently today I’ve been cueing up various songs and revisiting the career of a chameleonic talent who seemed to reinvent himself every few years. The reinvention had an element of pure show, but fundamentally it reflected Bowie’s roving mind and his insistence on finding something else, something different, to be interested in musically—a new noise to make, instead of the same old ones. I admire that.

The Price of Eggs

An article in the New York Times provides an unnerving look at egg “donation,” a pillar of the assisted reproduction industry.

Up till now, prices for eggs have been limited by voluntary guidelines, set in 2000 by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, that deemed it “inappropriate” to pay more than $10,000 for a woman’s eggs. The guideline is being challenged by a class-action lawsuit on behalf of egg donors, spurred by strong supply-and-demand forces. If unconstrained, these forces will rev up an already humming, $80 million market in a big way. 

As the Catholic News Agency reports, egg donors are typically students responding to ads posted by “egg recruiters” in cafes, fitness centers and school newspapers. The article sums up the allure: “Dangle $8000-$10,000, per monthly cycle, in front of a cash-strapped college student or a barista struggling to live in an expensive city and you’ve got donors.” Roughly one in seven American couples now suffers from infertility, and demand for eggs is strong. And not just any old eggs. There are plenty of people willing to pay large sums of money for eggs they deem of premium quality. The Times reveals one agency promising $50,000 to $100,000 “to egg donors who meet stringent, personalized search criteria.” Donors considered premium include actresses, models, Asians, Jewish women and Ivy League students with high SAT scores. “For us, a first-time Asian donor might get $10,000-$25,000, and a repeat donor might get to $40,000, occasionally $50,000,” says Darlene Pinkerton, a founder of A Perfect Match, an agency in Southern California.

Trump, Take Two

Herewith is an update on my earlier thoughts about Donald Trump, set down in the balmy days of late summer, when one could take him less seriously.

How seriously do we have to take him now? I’m fascinated by the hermeneutical nature of Trump – the way he is less a polished and serious candidate than a social and political phenomenon begging for interpretation. What explains his improbable rise? Many frameworks have been put forward. There’s the anti-political-correctness framework, which is essentially what I argued back in August. There’s the white-male-working-class resentment framework. The Ayn Rand, worship-of-capitalist-titans framework.  The triumph-and-travesty-of-entertainment framework. And, most recently, the “unstoppable digital virality” framework.

Remembering Robert Stone

The end of the year approaches, a time for thinking about those who were with us a year ago and no longer are. Today I’m thinking about novelist Robert Stone, who died in January. My friend and fellow Commonweal contributor Jonathan Stevenson has written a fine assessment of Stone’s oeuvre.  For my part, long ago Stone was my teacher; some months back I wrote an appreciation, and I want to offer it here, for Commonweal readers who admired his work. 

As a novelist Stone earned renown for his mordant renderings of American recklessness abroad and tumult at home. In a valedictory appraisal, the Times’ critic Michiko Kakutani judged him “one of the few writers to capture the apocalyptic madness of America in the 1960s,” praising his “dense, philosophical, baroque” prose for “conjuring the emotional temperature of a time and place with extraordinary intensity and fervor.”

That extraordinary intensity characterized the man himself. In 1977 I took Bob Stone’s fiction-writing class at Amherst College, where he was Visiting Writer for several years. At that point he was best known for his Vietnam novel, Dog Soldiers, and for his association with novelist Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, whose escapades were captured in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. One afternoon a week for three hours, a dozen of us would sit in a seminar room in the English building, Johnson Chapel, discussing our stories and monitoring our teacher’s intense and enigmatic presence.