The “discriminating” reader

Lately there’s been a really bizarre and disgusting notion going around. It’s a “challenge” to spend a year reading only books by people of specified racial or sexual characteristics. Its source is an article by K. T. Bradford, titled “I Challenge You to Stop Reading White, Straight, Cis Male Authors for One Year.” It wouldn’t be worth paying attention to except that I’ve seen others seriously discussing it. Now K. T. can read anything or not for any reason. It’s the “challenge” which is offensive.

K. T. Bradford (I think), warning you not to read Neil GaimanIf you accept Bradford’s advice, you have to start by deciding whether you’re allowed to read the article itself. Is K. T. a man or a woman, and of what skin shade? There are several pictures on the page which don’t actually say they’re of Bradford, but it seems likely; I’ve linked to one of the pictures so you can decide before clicking. Of course, anyone who’s taken the pledge can’t read this post either, so that really doesn’t help.

People who take the pledge will have to research the authors of every piece they decide to read. That will pretty much kill their reading for the year, thus solving the problem. Or there’s an easier way: You can let gatekeepers give you a list of permitted reading. Bradford is, just by chance, available to provide you that service. The article ends with “some reading list seeds to get you started.” Relying on Bradford and other gatekeepers of permitted literature is really the only way a serious reader would make it through the year without sinning.

The idea seems to appeal to some readers as a way to explore new material they might have otherwise missed. As a way to find new material to read, with ideas that might challenge their usual ways of thinking, seeking out authors off the normal path can offer value. But for Bradford, it’s the exact opposite of this. She’s retreating into her comfort zone:

Because every time I tried to get through a magazine, I would come across stories that I didn’t enjoy or that I actively hated or that offended me so much I rage-quit the issue. Go through enough of that, and you start to resist the idea of reading at all.

I can sympathize with wanting to avoid upsetting material; there are a lot of books I’ve given up on and a few I’ve tossed across the room. But she decided it was the race, sex, or sexual orientation of the writers that was upsetting her.

A discriminating reader will ask questions like: How good a writer is the author? What outlook on life do the author’s works present? For fiction, what kind of story do they tell and what kind of characters to they portray? For nonfiction, how good is the author’s research and presentation? But the “discriminating” reader, in a much uglier sense of the term, will ask: What’s the author’s skin color? Is the author male or female? What kind of sex does the author engage in? It’s the supermarket tabloid mentality.

Let’s judge authors by what they write, not by their appearance or private choices.

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Guerrilla preservation

Occasionally I’ve toyed with the idea of a writing project about “guerrilla archiving” or “guerrilla preservation.” In an earlier post, I wrote about the rescue of valuable documents in Timbuktu, with a mention of the Warsaw Ghetto Archive. Stories of people without special expertise or resources rescuing pieces of history are inspiring to me. Sometimes they do it well, sometimes ineptly, but if they keep some treasure from being lost, they deserve credit.

Lately I’ve come across some more stories of the same kind. The story of Anne Frank’s diary is well known, but not all the details are. When the Nazis discovered and arrested the Frank family, SD officer Karl Silberbauer grabbed a briefcase to stuff valuables into. He emptied its existing contents onto the floor; these included some of Anne’s writings. Miep Gies, one of the employees at Opetka where they had been hiding, took the papers and locked them in her desk. Later she instructed the senior warehouseman to get her any other papers from the hiding place before the Nazis cleared it out. Anne’s father Otto was the only family member to survive the war; Gies gave him the papers when he returned from Auschwitz, making their publication possible.

Much of Franz Schubert’s unpublished music went into the hands of the brothers Anselm and Josef Hüttenbrenner after his death. They didn’t always take the best care of it. His incidental music for Claudina von Villa Bella was partially lost in 1848 when Josef’s servants used Acts 2 and 3 to kindle fires. In 1823 Schubert sent Anselm the score for two movements of a symphony, which just sat in his collection for years. In 1865, when Anselm was 70 years old, the conductor Johann Herbeck visited him and looked at them; later that year, he gave their premiere in Vienna. The existence of a sketched score for the third movement shows that Schubert intended to finish it as a full four-movement symphony, but for some reason he never did. As it stands it’s still one of his greatest compositions, and without Anselm Hüttenbrenner and Herbeck we might never have known of the “Unfinished Symphony.”

Franz Kafka also died leaving a lot of unpublished material, but he gave his friend Max Brod strict instructions to burn it all. Brod instead published the three novels, The Trial, The Castle, and Der Verschollene (aka Amerika). In 1939, just before the Germans closed the Czech border, he left Prague with a suitcase full of papers and took them to Palestine. These were the subject of a long legal battle between Brod’s heirs and the National Library of Israel, which reached a decision only two years ago and, as far as I can tell, is still under appeal. As in Kafka’s fiction, the legal process never ends.

Other papers of his ended up with Dora Diamant, his girlfriend during the last year of his life. She told Brod that she had burned them, but she secretly kept them. The Gestapo seized them in 1933 while looking for Communist material. The search has continued for years. According to the Kafka Project at San Diego State University, “if Kafka’s lost writings still exist, they are safely buried among top-secret documents in closed archives in Poland.” (I’m really not very impressed with Kafka’s work, but it’s undeniable that he’s had a significant influence on our culture.)

In all three cases, if people hadn’t done what they did, parts of our cultural canon would be missing now. There must have been other works, some matching them in value, that we’ve never heard of because there was no one to save them from oblivion.

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SF, fantasy, and libertarianism

Libertarian themes are common in science fiction. Several of Heinlein’s works have clearly libertarian ideas, and several other authors, including F. Paul Wilson, L. Neil Smith, and J. Neil Schulman (there must be a reason for the first initial-middle name pattern), have written hard-core libertarian SF. Ayn Rand’s Anthem is science fiction, and Atlas Shrugged has important SF elements.

Science fiction is about exploring alternative possibilities, and the analytic approach that’s common in SF appeals to many libertarians. There is, of course, also a lot of science fiction with clearly non-libertarian ideas, promoting socialism, scientist-kings, benevolent alien overlords, and supposedly good galactic elites that hold arbitrary powers of life and death. A genre that deals in speculation will go in all directions.

In fantasy literature, though, I can’t think of any important work that I’d call libertarian. There’s a difference between works that are specifically libertarian and ones which might be called libertarian-friendly. There’s no lack of fantasy works in which tyrants are overthrown or would-be tyrants are frustrated, but those villains are so evil that no one would support them. You don’t have to be against income taxes and for legalizing cocaine in order to hate Sauron, Lord Voldemort, or the White Witch.

Some of these works have sections with special libertarian appeal. Tolkien’s Shire has almost no government and gets along very well. Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods presents an authoritarian religious state as the villains, and even its god learns to grant people more freedom. They’re far from explicitly libertarian, though. Some people have tried to present J. K. Rowling’s Wizarding World as libertarian, but the wizards have enslaved the house-elves and set up a literally soul-sucking prison.

Fantasy literature deals in magic, and it’s sympathetic to the idea that ideas can be solved literally by waving a wand. This has obvious appeal to progressives and socialists, who like to think that a sufficiently powerful government can make everyone well off in spite of the laws of economics. Libertarian ideas are built on the assumption that wealth has to be created and earned by thought and effort. Magical worlds are built on the idea that it can be created by inherent power, in effect by wishing. What you were born as often matters more than what you have made of yourself. Aragorn deserves to be king because of his ancestry. Muggles can’t levitate a peanut, no matter how much they study. Good and evil tend to be represented as cosmic forces rather than individual choices, and it’s necessary to follow the born leader in order to hold back the Forces of Darkness.

Obviously I haven’t read everything, and in fan fiction just about every possibility has been tried, so I’m sure there is libertarian fantasy out there. There are opportunities for trope-smashing stories or pushing the idea of the Promethean rebel. My filk song “De-liver Us from Evil” casts Zeus as a patent troll. Perhaps someone could do (or has done) a story of opening free trade between dwarves and elves?

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