13 November 2009

Book Review: U and J

I've decided to use personal essays for my U and J letters in the A-Z Challenge, in part because I seem to have an inability to find appropriate books I wish to read and in part because I really like personal essays and need to get back into reading them.

Upside Down and Backward by William T. Vollman
Vollman discusses the popular trend of looking at the unreal instead of the real through sections on a camera obscura, personal experiences as a journalist, and thoughts on television. As Vollman writes, "freshness wilts", and what was once miraculous about the real world has been replaced by the imitation which is touted as something which "will soon be better than the real thing". Like Vollman, this idea terrifies me.

The essay is mildly reminiscent of Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death and dystopic novels such as Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. In one section Vollman describes a night scene in Kabul and then says: "Have I 'understood' Afghanistan? Not by a long shot. But at least I saw it. I didn't just watch it on CNN." The difference between authentic and inauthentic experience is one I've contemplated often. I envy the concreteness of a real experience even as I overwhelm myself with inauthentic experiences through reading.

The Joys and Perils of Victimhood by Ian Buruma
In his essay, Buruma points out an issue that I have never considered, but now find myself a real dolt for not taking issue with earlier. Buruma discusses the popular trend for religious, ethnic, sexual, etc. groups of people to identify almost solely as victims. In a world where multiculturalism has become the norm - where the ethnic distinctions between groups of people are diminishing - certain groups are heaving a rallying cry for their historical victimhood in some sort of "Olympics of suffering". While Buruma acknowledges the historical suffering of many groups - he is Jewish - he worries that "when a cultural, ethnic, religious, or national community bases its communal identity almost entirely on the sentimental solidarity of remembered victimhood, for that way lies historical myopia and, in extreme cases, even vendetta." He also worries that this push for a more "feeling" type of history will obscure the fact that historical truth does exist; it's not all about how people felt, real things happened.

I could not agree more. I have often wondered about this overly passionate attachment to past ethnic/cultural sufferings. I can not dislike the English because I'm Irish. Japanese-Americans can not hang on to the internment; African-Americans can not wallow in slavery. We did not experience those things. And while we most certainly can not forget the atrocities that have happened in the past, dwelling on them, identifying ourselves as victims, is counterproductive.

I would recommend both of these essays as they are well-written, insightful, and intriguing.

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