Analysis and Critique: How to Engage and Write about Anything by Dorsey Armstrong, Ph.D. (audiocourse)
This is the Teaching Company's 2011 audiocourse about how to write persuasive essays.
This was a misfire on my part. I'd meant to listen to Becoming a Great Essayist, the Teaching Company's overview of different essay styles. I write essays nearly constantly — between reviews, updates, diaries, and nattering on about improv — but it's been decades since I've actively worked at getting better at my craft. Instead, it's one of those things like typing or driving — you get good enough to get by, and then you plateau hard even though it's a basic life skill.
Instead, I had Analysis and Critique. It covers its subject well. It is, indeed, about writing persuasive essays. It's taught by a medieval literature professor, so it focuses particularly on writing persuasive literary analysis in an academic setting. It feels geared towards high-school and college writers.
That meant a lot of the material felt a little too easy. Yes, I know how a classic five-paragraph structure. I know that the middle three paragraphs should clearly support the topic sentence introduced in the first. In fact there was a lot of material that I knew and had deliberately discarded. For instance, I don't fret too much over transitions in longer pieces, choosing instead to just drop in lots of headings and subheadings: let the reader know exactly where they are at a glance, put in a segue if there really *is* a useful connection between this section and the previous one, and just get on with it.
And even though the arts are relatively stable, and it's only nine years old, this course shows its age. It includes some charmingly dated instructions on how to do research on the Internet. (Did you know that ".edu" sites are often more trustworthy than ".com" sites? And don't trust wikipedia — ANYONE CAN EDIT IT.) It also has some grammar proscriptions that feel out of date — my blood boiled when the professor confidently said 'singular they' is wrong.
There were yet a few useful bits to take away from this course. I liked the analysis of Thoreau's Walden and "Civil Disobedience". I was intrigued by the notion of using your essay's introduction to set down the framing of your argument — to define terms and establish what the range of possible conclusions might be. This reminded me of the powerful research from, say, George Lakoff about how similar concepts are used in politics to persuasive effect. But the course didn't go into much detail on that.
Generally, though, this course isn't what I was looking for. Fifteen-year-old me would have found it a gold mine for all his future school essays, but here, thousands of essays later and academia long behind me, I didn't find much I could use.
Hit and Run by Nancy Griffin and Kim Masters
This is the 2016 bio of Jon Peters and Peter Guber, a hotshot production team best known for running Sony Pictures into the ground in the early 90s. Yes, this is the same Jon Peters that famously tried to get Kevin Smith to write a huge robot spider into Superman.
In a way, this book is a perfect complement to Pictures at a Revolution and Best. Movie. Year. Ever.. Pictures is about the explosive creativity of the Best Picture nominees in the year 1968, and how they were a harbinger of brilliant auteur works to come. Best is about how, in 1999, renegade indie filmmakers created bracing new works against a backdrop of bland, corporate product.
Hit and Run answers the question "what went wrong in between?" How did we get from this amazing starting pistol of auteur creativity — when the old studio system of cranking out product was clearly giving way to bold new visions for what film could be and could do — to 1999, when suddenly it was all boring suits again, people without knowledge of or perhaps even interest in film itself?
And yes, this is an oversimplification — every studio has good executives, every year has good films — but there are overall trends to the industry. Hit and Run traces this overall arc, in which the creativity sputters out, and eventually even the "safe commercial bet" films fail at basic storytelling. Jon Peters leaps from hairdressing to film production in the early 70s. Peter Guber gets his start at Columbia in 1968.
As characterized in the book, the two men were purely grasping for power and money, glamour and fame. Movies held no interest in and of themselves — they were just the means to that end. So, they made their safe bets, mismanaged their projects into oblivion, squeezed every red cent they could out of any company dimwitted enough to employ them, and always, always failed upwards. They had made the connections they needed, gathered (or invented) the accolades they desired, and kept getting more powerful.
As Sony Pictures goes, so goes the nation.
The experience of reading the book is interesting.
On the one hand, it's intoxicating to read about the pointless, idiotic excess of these various movie execs. It's hilarious to read about their terrible creative decisions, their nakedly venal financial choices, and then all the stupid things they wind up buying. Just the amount of office remodeling that happens in this book could rival the GDP of some nations.
On the other, watching all of this from 2020, when capitalism generates so much inequity, inefficiency, and misery, is misery. It's like it's spelling out exactly how capitalism fails — exactly how the shoutiest, blusteriest white guys get put in charge, and then cannot create effective products. And then they get rewarded with mulit-million-dollar golden parachutes, sent on their way, and replaced with other equally useless, equally shouty white guys.
Yes, capitalism is supposed to prevent this sort of market inefficiency. But reading Hit and Run, you can't help feeling like the movie industry is like a doomed genus, a whole family of animals that have evolved so long in one particular direction that they have no hope of evolving back *out* of it when their methods no longer work. All evolution can 'do', if we may impart it such agency, is wipe out the whole slate and let less borked animals fill the niche.
So it is with so many businesses: sick, inefficient, immiserating, but powerful, for now, and too sclerotic to do anything but hold on, tightly, for years and years. In the long run, they're all gone — but in the long run, we're all dead.
But: back to the book.
Hit and Run does a great job recounting several decades of bland, inept film production — of blinkered executives giving more and more power to men whose only skill is manipulating the system — and making it a fun read. It's glamorous, it's full of bareknuckle showdowns, and it touches on a zillion middling films you halfway remember, every VHS box you passed over at Blockbuster Video. ("Oh. *That's* why Hudson Hawk happened.") Directors, musicians, and movie stars move through the edges of the story. Massive, disastrous, multimillion dollar deals get made.
It's not the best at sketching in all its characters — eventually the old white dudes with insatiable appetites for drugs, women, and luxury goods all start blending together. But it does a great job explaining all the complicated business going on — the terms of the deals, and the bizarre moral hazard that comes into play when, say, the head of CBS is rewarded for net viewership and not desirable demographics. (Result: CBS racked up every geriatric viewer it could find, skewing the brand in a way that I'm convinced persists to this day.)
And again, it's a great view of a sick, not-quite-functional movie industry. This is how you get an entire business sector making product that nobody wants. This is how you get a company that steadily fails, and steadily refuses to learn any lessons from its failure.
After reading this, I find myself less surprised that Disney has taken over so much of the movie business. It was only a matter of time before somebody started doing business sanely and ate everyone's lunch.
In the end, I'm glad I read Hit and Run, as it filled in a gap in my (dim) awareness of the movie industry and its history. And it also serves as a fun, trashy read about a huge business conglomerate spiraling into catastrophic failure. But if you don't already follow the entertainment industry, it might not be worth your time.
How to Grow Anything: Food Gardening for Everyone by Melinda Myers
This is the 2015 Teaching Company course about vegetable gardening.
As a course, this is a great reference book.
Ms. Myers goes into a decent amount of detail about lots of different topics: handling pests, soil preparation, proper irrigation, and so on. And for each topic, she goes down the list: here are a lot of pests you might encounter; here's how to prepare soil for plants
But it hits the usual problem with teaching botany, or things like botany: it's hard to get any sort of 'big picture' view of the plant kingdom. It's just a lot of details: again, good for a reference, but it's hard to retain the information, or come away from it understanding gardening with any depth.
A lot of those details are irrelevant to me. The instructor is from Wisconsin, and she's full of advice on how to extend the growing season when it gets too cold. Meanwhile, I live in Texas, so I'm thinking, "What is this 'too cold' you speak of?" — I need to know how to work around our 110° summers. There's lots of advice about how to make do with meager amounts of space — again, not a problem in my current digs. Even the advice about how to make a garden look pretty for visitors is not quite relevant when "visitors" are no longer a thing.
As far as I can tell, the general consensus is that nobody would be foolish enough to try to grow vegetables in Texas, so most instructions on the subject will assume no Texans are reading.
I did get a useful tidbit here and there. I finally learned how to properly prune a fruit tree — this is information that I did not have when I bought my little Meyer lemon plant. Instead, I let the plant ('Judy') do as it pleased, and it pleased to grow one giant lopsided branch that pokes out of a chaotic bramble of self-shading foliage. In the future, I can do better.
And the instructor's delivery is effective. She does some useful demonstrations, like setting up a worm-composter. They include nice bits of gardening footage, and plenty of useful pictures of the various plants they discuss. Ms. Myers is a genial presenter, though most of her sentences end with the minor-third cadence of Eddie Izzard saying, "... and five ran."
Long term, I should probably just focus on putting up hydroponic gardens in my house.
Human Errors: A Panorama of Our Glitches, from Pointless Bones to Broken Genes by Nathan H. Lents
This is a 2018 nonfiction book about the numerous design flaws present in the human mind and body, how they likely came about via evolution, and how we muddle through, working around them as best we can.
This is a fun theme. It's delightful to learn weird bits of trivia like "all your rods and cones were put in backwards" or "10% of your DNA is just one 'phrase' repeated a million times". And it's a pleasant way of bringing receipts to any Intelligent Design types who insist that "Humanity was DESIGNED BY SKYGOD to be PERFECT."
Mr. Lents does a good job of making the book feel coherent. The topic is inherently listicle-ish: the easiest way to write about "the flaws of the human body" is to make a big bulleted list with one paragraph per flaw. But the author finds good themes to lean on throughout: that evolution only works with the material it's got; that we evolved to handle a wildly different environment from the one we're now in; that sometimes there's too little evolutionary pressure to make a flaw go away in a timely fashion. And the chapters do a good job of splitting things up into subtopics, from "finicky dietary requirements" to "a reproductive system that almost always fails".
Still, the wide breadth of topics in this book is eventually a liability. The author's wheelhouse is cancer and cell biology, and he goes far afield from that. In some cases, this makes the writing feel shallow; for instance, in the psychology section, it feels like he read Thinking, Fast and Slow and he's giving us the highlights he remembers. In others, he just flat-out gets the facts wrong. He gives what one could charitably call the 'folk interpretation' of the hygiene hypothesis, which led me to post something dumb about it to facebook.¹ And it's that usual feeling when a book whiffs one fact really badly: you suddenly wonder if they're getting *everything* wrong.
Also, the range of material means it's harder to make things hold together thematically. The basic theme of "evolution has limitations" is a great way to discuss genetic diseases, weird extra bones, and even the zillion problems with human reproduction. By the time we're talking about cognitive biases, though, the connections get tenuous. You can invent a reason why evolution might have led to this or that misunderstanding of probability, but it's going to feel like a tenuous just-so story compared to the harder science in the rest of the book.
Still, the book is fun. Ranting about design flaws is a nice way to blow off steam in any context, and it's cute to see that directed at how humans are put together. It's full of fun trivia. The prose is serviceable and amusing. In the end, it doesn't have much of a larger point to make, and the book gets less solid when it gets out of the author's experience, but it's still a nice way to pass the time.
The Theater of War: What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us Today by Bryan Doerries [audiobook]
This is the 2015 nonfiction book from the director of the Theater of War Project, a theater company that focuses on presenting classical theater to military audiences. The book is about how Greek tragedies can help modern audiences process trauma, and the work their company has done along these lines.
The best thing I can say about this book is that it's short: 283 pages, in hardback. Yes, that's usually an insult, but here I mean it as high praise. Mr. Doerries has a theme he believes in passionately, and he gets in, makes his point, and gets out, without a superfluous page, paragraph, or word.
He tells poignant stories of trauma to illustrate the kind of pain that classical works are designed to help us process. He explains how Greek society dealt with this same problem. He talks about how certain classical works tackle it head-on. And he recounts how performances for relevant audiences created a space where the community could talk about how they felt, and start to process it.
Mr. Doerries also explains how he himself got into classics. It provides a useful way into the material: he started as a 'civilian', familiar with, say, Sophocles through the stuffy 19ᵗʰ-century translations you slog through in AP World Literature. But once he was past that, he found the plays to be much more vital than he expected, and shockingly relevant to his own traumatic experiences.
After a few more twists and turns, this leads to the Theater of War project. It started as purely military outreach, and he includes a terrifying story of a soldier cracking under the pressure of *civilian* life in between deployments in the Gulf War. He focuses his discussion on Ajax, an underrated Sophocles tragedy that centers on the title character's suicide after the death of Achilles. And then we see how scenes from that have impact on military audiences. We lose a veteran to suicide roughly once a day — it's a community that faces down a lot of what Sophocles talks about, but has historically stigmatized mental health care.
The book goes through similar structures when it talks about the project's expansion to other audiences: prison employees and end-of-life caregivers.
It's a good book. The stories of personal tragedy are riveting, and set the stakes for the performances. The community discussions have the power of drama, of the afflicted talking, often for the first time, about things that matter deeply to them. Adam Driver reads the audiobook, and does an excellent job both with the prose and with taking on various characters in plays and anecdotes — enough to get the vibe of the person without going into caricature.
And once Mr. Doerries has said what he needs to say, he's done.
For next week: no backlog! What a relief. Meanwhile, I'm watching the first season of the original Star Trek and the third season of Parks and Recreation. I'm reading a pop-linguistics book and a quite challenging Spanish-language sci-fi book; on The Great Courses I'm listening to another gardening audiocourse.
¹ Fortunately, I know a fair number of biologists who were able to set me straight on that.