Teju Cole on America’s Reader in Chief

Read Teju Cole’s essay “A Reader’s War,” which tries to square Obama’s reputation as a man “widely read in philosophy, literature, and history” with the White House’s policies of drone warfare. From the essay:

How on earth did this happen to the reader in chief? What became of literature’s vaunted power to inspire empathy? Why was the candidate Obama, in word and in deed, so radically different from the President he became? In Andrei Tarkovsky’s eerie 1979 masterpiece, “Stalker,” the landscape called the Zona has the power to grant people’s deepest wishes, but it can also derange those who traverse it. I wonder if the Presidency is like that: a psychoactive landscape that can madden whomever walks into it, be he inarticulate and incurious, or literary and cosmopolitan.

I Try to Riff on Both Flesh and Not, DFW’s New Essay Collection, Which I Haven’t Read, as I Drink Red Wine to Numb the Election Coverage (Book Acquired, 11.06.2012)


1. Today, I picked up Both Flesh and Not, a collection of David Foster Wallace essays and short pieces. I specifically ordered this book from my local bookstore (I didn’t get a review copy), and I bought it in hardback (I generally dislike hardbacks).

2. I should be reading it now—I’d like to be reading it—but I’m flicking between the five or six channels I have, usually stopping on PBS, and then scanning Twitter and other online media, because, hey, it’s Election Day in America.

3. I’ve already read several of the pieces in Both Flesh. You might have too. Here’s the table of contents:



4. But a lot of it I haven’t read. I’m eager to dig into the piece on David Markson, and the piece on Brat Pack writers, “Fictional Futures,” which was later repurposed in “E Unibus Pluram.”

5. I spent most of the afternoon riffling through it, trying not to think about the election results that would be coming in the next few years. I played outside with my kids, building a strange hut out of giant elephant leaves and then a small nest out of pine straw. I photographed the planes that daily fly over our neighborhood, slow, heavy supply planes that drift in lazy routine arcs from the nearby naval base, not loud as jets, but bulky. Elephant mothers, pregnant.


6. I remembered that Wallace killed himself in an election year, in September. I remember how I felt.

7. (Please don’t think this riff is really about anything. I’m distracted. I’ve imbibed some wine. Some Xanax might be involved).

8. Speaking of posts in 2008—

I went back just now, and riffled through the site’s archives from November of 2008. (Back when I’d post like three, maybe four times a week. Once a day at most).

A lot of vitriol there. A lot of vitriol for Palin, and a lot of vitriol for the emerging sentiment that would galvanize in what would become the Tea Party movement.

I wrote about the Election Night too. About Jesse Jackson’s tears. I even wrote about finding some respite from cynicism in Obama’s election. (Don’t worry, I’m as cynical as ever. Moreso—

9. —but

I remember watching the inauguration in 2009. I was still teaching high school. I had third period planning and I watched the whole shebang in an empty lab on the school’s third floor with my friend Derek, a black Muslim who taught history in the classroom next to mine. It was cold up there and empty. I remember he asked me if the election poem was good and I asked him what he thought (I thought it was good). I remember we cried a little in spite of ourselves and clutched at each other. The world seemed so much more possible. I’m clutching to this memory now, which is deep and rich and I hope to keep forever. It presents through pinot and Xanax).

10. Is this a bait and switch? I apologize. Look, I love you reader. Really, I do. I do.

11. So, another detail from the Wallace collection:

The selections are intercut with definitions from his vocabulary list for The American Heritage Dictionary. Like so:


12. What was I doing here? I don’t know. Let me just wrap it up. I should be writing about DFW and the book but I can’t. Distracted. I’ll schedule the post. Let it stand. Let it roll at 11:11am tomorrow? (To clarify–it’s 9:55pm on 11/06/2012).

Okay, I’ll do that. Finish the rest in the comments? Sure. And some more, of course, about the book.

Definition of “Vote” (Ambrose Bierce)

Imperial Vollmann, Populist Beach Reading, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

A few odds and ends (and perhaps a bit of ranting):


Read this fascinating profile of William Vollmann from this week’s New York Times. It makes me wish I had nothing to do but read everything this maniac writes. Vollmann’s new book Imperial comes out today from Viking. You can read an excerpt here.

Not really surprisingly, Vollmann did not make NPR‘s reader poll for the 100 Best Beach Books Ever. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series topped a list that pretty much consists of a bunch of drivel (Twilight, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood), drivel posing as non-drivel (The Kite Runner, The Time Traveler’s Wife), overrated “classics,” (To Kill A Mockingbird), and a few surprises (Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is a fantastic book, but is it really best enjoyed on a sunny beach?)


This one didn’t make the beach reading list either. For a few years now, selections from The Classic Slave Narratives have been required reading in my high school classroom. I usually emphasize sections from Olaudah Equiano and Frederick Douglass, two masterful writers whose complex syntax and diction can be stunning, if not overwhelming, to the average AP student. I think that these narratives speak to why writing matters, and, importantly in today’s idiocracy, why reading matters as well. These first-person accounts of the horrors of slavery need to be read, and editor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. does a great job of setting the stage in his remarkable introduction to the collection. It’s sad, intellectually tragic, really, that Gates’s recent arrest should be given so much credit for sparking a “debate” or “teachable moment” about race, when Gates’s own scholarship makes the rootedness of racial tension in this country so plain. When a demagogue like Glenn Beck calls President Obama a “racist,” or a big fat idiot like Rush Limbaugh suggests that Obama simply has a “chip on his shoulder” because he’s black, we can see precisely why the first-person narratives of Equiano, Douglass, Mary Prince, and Harriet Jacobs are so important. These dangerous lunatics repeatedly suggest on their shows that America needs to keep its “traditions,” that our “history” is a strength, and that somehow the past was a place of better values. Perhaps if they read something outside of the dominant narrative they’d understand why someone might want to reappraise historically traditional values (and also, why someone might have a chip on his shoulder). But I’ve digressed from my main point: The Classic Slave Narratives is a valuable and important collection, and the stories collected here are a real entry point for any genuine discussion on race.

“Praise Song for the Day” — Elizabeth Alexander

“Praise Song for the Day” by Elizabeth Alexander (Obama 2009 inaugural poem)

Praise song for the day.

Each day we go about our business, walking past each other, catching each others’ eyes or not, about to speak or speaking. All about us is noise. All about us is noise and bramble, thorn and din, each one of our ancestors on our tongues. Someone is stitching up a hem, darning a hole in a uniform, patching a tire, repairing the things in need of repair.

Someone is trying to make music somewhere with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.

A woman and her son wait for the bus.

A farmer considers the changing sky; A teacher says, “Take out your pencils. Begin.”

We encounter each other in words, words spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed; words to consider, reconsider.

We cross dirt roads and highways that mark the will of someone and then others who said, “I need to see what’s on the other side; I know there’s something better down the road.”

We need to find a place where we are safe; We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

Say it plain, that many have died for this day. Sing the names of the dead who brought us here, who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges, picked the cotton and the lettuce, built brick by brick the glittering edifices they would then keep clean and work inside of.

Praise song for struggle; praise song for the day. Praise song for every hand-lettered sign; The figuring it out at kitchen tables.

Some live by “Love thy neighbor as thy self.”

Others by first do no harm, or take no more than you need.

What if the mightiest word is love, love beyond marital, filial, national. Love that casts a widening pool of light. Love with no need to preempt grievance.

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air, anything can be made, any sentence begun.

On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp — praise song for walking forward in that light.

We Are The Ones We Have Been Waiting For


Toward A New Zeitgeist

Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity” — Martin Luther King, Jr.

For the past eight years, inspired by their own dangerous, sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity, the Bush Gang has perpetuated myriad crimes against humanity and the planet. They didn’t do it alone, of course–the United States is, after all, a Democratic Republic, and its populace–us, we, I mean–stood by like inert zombies after the 9/11 attacks and let Bush and his cronies get away with an illegal war, openly spying on American citizens, detaining prisoners without charging them or giving them legal recourse, and even torturing prisoners. Walt Whitman said that there “is no week nor day nor hour when tyranny may not enter upon this country, if the people lose their roughness and spirit of defiance,” and surely many of us, most of us, were soft and complicit when we should have been rougher and more defiant. Not that many didn’t protest and fight, but the zeitgeist in America this decade was one of hushed zealotry, where the old American values of dissent, protest, and even curiosity were eschewed as the terrain of those awful liberal elitists who might actually, you know, ask questions.

The oughties, or the 2000s, or the noughties, or whatever we’ll call them, really began November 8, 2000, the day after one of the most contested elections in American history. A bad start, really, and many of us will always believe that the neocons stole the election. A year later, after the 9/11 attacks, it became evident that this would be a decade of fear and violence and repression and silence. By the time the neocons were ramping up their illegal war against Iraq–a war that they’d had planned for years before 9/11–many of us felt worn down to cynical little nubs, still in groggy disbelief at what was happening. A 2004 story in The Onion, “Nations Liberals Suffering From Outrage Fatigue,” perfectly captured how I felt, and also signaled that it would be satire and distance and cynicism that would communicate the extraordinarily dangerous ignorance and stupidity of this decade. Getting news of the Bush Gang’s malfeasance from satirical sources like SNL‘s “Weekend Update” or The Daily Show with John Stewart made the cruel realities of this decade somehow more palatable, but at the same time these sources underlined the disengagement that many of us allowed ourselves to fall into, the deep ironic defense reaction against a spirit of the age with which we felt unable to communicate. In short, many of us dropped out; our “Outrage Fatigue” could only last so long. Inertia and cynicism spiked with brief episodes of outrage slowly evolved (or, rather, devolved) into what I would call “The Bush Show,” a long, long cycle of events, each new episode topping the last in terms of its deviousness, ignorance, and stupidity. Am I just railing now, perhaps, recapping what you already know? Sorry.

Here’s my point: Right after the election, I stated in a post I wrote from my gut that the election of Obama shattered my cynical shell, that I felt open and happy and even positive about politics for the first time since I was a kid. I have not and never will lose my skepticism, but, as I pointed out in that post and repeat here, by simply choosing someone so different–and I refer here not to Obama’s dark skin but rather to his knowledge and intellect and openness (in contrast to Bush’s “sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity”)–by choosing someone like Obama, we have signaled a shift in the spirit of the age. And here is what I propose: Let’s end the decade today, or at 11:59 a.m. tomorrow. Let’s agree that the awful oughties are over, and that a new decade has begun. We don’t have to change any physical documents–calendars, etc.–we just have to all know that a new zeitgeist has been initiated. The New Dark Age of the Bush Years has passed, but we can learn from it as negative example, as an abysmal signal of what not to do ever again.