“I’m In Pieces, Bits and Pieces”

… or at least this blog post is.

Item: The Spawn is currently reading The Great Gatsby in her English class. She has about as much use for it as I did when I read it 31 years ago, which is to say not much. Honestly, I haven’t much more use for it now, and suspect that much of its place in the canon is due to its brevity, the accessibility of a movie version, and the fact that like Animal Farm and Lord of the Flies, it’s obvious in a way that makes a single reading pretty much sufficient. But on the way home from school today, I said something about Gatsby-as-poseur, using his library as a case in point. That got me a “Huh?”, so I explained that quality books were once sold with the pages unopened, leaving the reader to separate the pages with a paper-knife or other edged object. The fact that Gatsby’s library is filled with books in this condition indicates that they’ve never been read, and are merely another accessory — part of the pose.

The Spawn was indignant. “Why does no one explain these things? Why wasn’t this even mentioned?” I suggested that it had probably slipped her teacher’s mind — which seemed to me a diplomatic reply, and perhaps even a true one. “I don’t know,” the Spawn said. “I don’t think she really wants to be there. She’s got that thousand-yard stare. Dead eyes, like a hooker.” Lacking an adequate response, I finished the drive home.

Item: I started reading a couple of greatly differing books this morning, but I suspect I’ll enjoy them both. First off is James Branch Cabell’s Jurgen, A Comedy of Justice. I knew Cabell was an influence on Heinlein, but I just had never gotten round to reading any of his work. I’m not very far in at this point, but already finding that it provokes a melancholy smile. And this may prove to be utterly unfounded, but I’m picking up a touch of the same attitude that I found in parts of Rasselas. That’s a good thing.

The other book I started is Roger Kimball’s The Fortunes of Permanence, which Jay Nordlinger discussed in a series of articles at NRO last week. I’m about 90 pages in, and find it bracing. One bit that particularly caught my notice was a comment Kimball makes on the difference between information and knowledge. There has been an ongoing debate at Mondoville between the forces of teaching content versus skills (Obviously, the best approaches meld both, but I’ll use the binary here as shorthand.) The latter camp argues that we simply need to show these kids how to find information, how to arrange what they have retrieved, how to present it cleanly. On the other hand, say the content folks (including your genial host), a college graduate in the US should be able to understand the references in, say, a WSJ opinion piece. I would contend (as Kimball aptly puts it) that the skills camp confuses process with product. The struggle continues.

As an aside on this last, I’ve heard a number of people in the skills camp offer versions of Johnson’s bit about the two kinds of knowledge. But of course, they ignore the fact that Johnson possessed an abundance of both himself, and would never have relied exclusively upon the second. Then again, I’m the sort who “reads books through” more often than not, so perhaps I’m not to be trusted either.

Item: Colleague and reader the Nerd Girl passed this along, having seen it at a ferry terminal in Seattle. Fortunately, I’m gracious enough to share my sobriquet.


Item: Yesterday was Mother’s Day, of course — my fourth “white carnation” version of the holiday. But something odd happened yesterday as well. My mom’s favorite flower was the iris; she was pleased that the iris was the official flower of her home state as well. She liked all colors of the flower, but her favorite was purple.

Over the weekend, a stalk burst through the mulch in our back yard, near a bed of hostas we had transplanted from Kentucky. It was not expected — I don’t recall seeing it in past years. The stalk began to bloom on Saturday, and opened yesterday:


God provides.


About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
This entry was posted in Culture, Education, Family, Literature. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to “I’m In Pieces, Bits and Pieces”

  1. Javahead says:

    Just as long as it isn’t a *Soylent* MondoBurrito, Professor.

  2. Bob Gusky says:

    We had some irises in our backyard too. I remember being fascintated by the petal’s structure as a kid. As usual, your trip down memory lane in this post triggered some fond memories for me as well. Always thinking of you.

  3. The Ancient says:

    Dear Spawn —


    Daisy Buchanan shoots her husband Tom, and absconds to Australia with Gatsby. Nick Carraway and Jordan Baker move to Paris, where they open an all-night miniature golf course. Myrtle gets her own reality TV show. The movie ends with a spectacular ten-minute dance routine, to the tune of “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport.”

    Against this, I got a call this afternoon from my oldest friend, who is, everything else aside, a hugely successful screenwriter. He *loves* the movie — despite knowing more about Fitzgerald and Gatsby than any reasonable and fully-functional adult ought to know..

    P.S. Sara Murphy was my cousin, and I have a drawer full of Mark Cross wallets left over from my forgotten childhood. I think the Murphys would want your Dad to take you to see the movie. And then he should give you space to post your own review.

  4. jlbussey says:

    You guys aren’t the only one’s who don’t like Gatsby. All I remember of it was where the heck this supposed “romance” was. I haven’t thought about it in years, and this is twice it’s been mentioned in one day:

    My grandparents’ just iris started blooming too, it’s an old variety that’s really fragrant; the scent always reminds me of their back yard. (Pics linked with my name.)

  5. Jeff says:

    When we read Gatsby, my ninth-grade teacher brought in an old book and introduced us to the concept of uncut pages–which really was a heck of a thing to learn. Your daughter is right to be outraged that her teacher didn’t point out such an important aspect of print culture and such a revealing period detail.

  6. Melissa says:

    Everyone seems to be beating up on “Gatsby”lately. -Which makes me feel sad and unsophistocated since I loved Nick’s voice so much when I was a teenager. Not the characters, just the voice. Haven’t read it as an adult, -just quotes of course. It still moves me that Fitzgerald could write such a cautionary tale, and then go ahead and live it out himself.

  7. mike shupp says:

    Hmmm… I wonder, Gatsby’s a character of the 1920’s as I recall, an older character than I by 20 years or so, and I lack direct experience, but even at that early date I think book binders had learned to trim the outer edge, so all the leaves could be easily turned. I have met the occasional page or two in my lifetime of book buying and reading that required slitting, but not many. Which gives rise to a guess that Gatsby’s library books are old by the standards of the 1920’s. Which suggests he bought them as used books from someone else (or his interior decorator did), most likely at the sale of an existing library… owned by yet another poseur. So there’s a thought!

    Meanwhile, speaking of the 1920s’,. enjoy Cabell! Imagine how history would have turned out if Peter Jackson had met Jurgen before Frodo.

    • Javahead says:

      Mike, those are interesting thoughts.

      But although I love Cabell, the thought of Jurgen-by-Jackson is rather frightening. Jurgen is everything that hipsters like to imagine themselves to be: ironic, detached, cynical, brighter than those around him, able to maneuver though whatever life throws his way. Granted, most hipsters and “progressives” can only manage the first three, but they have delusions of adequacy. Let’s not encourage them with a pop role model.

      Now I’ve got to dig out my old copies and start re-reading. I haven’t read any of them in a couple of decades.

  8. Andrew Stevens says:

    Then again, I’m the sort who “reads books through” more often than not, so perhaps I’m not to be trusted either.

    Unless you are close to hopeless at selecting good books or at least books you’ll like, I think everybody, including Dr. Johnson, reads books through more often than not. The question is do you do so always (or at least nearly always), even if the book turns out to be miserable? If so, then I would suggest that Dr. Johnson is correct and you should break yourself of the habit. He is certainly correct that there are plenty of books which are good for nothing.

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