Scared Shitless, and Other News


On the Shelf

Man and woman, scared shitless. Not pictured: absence of shit.


  • If shitlessness is too taboo for you, there are other ways to jar and unnerve your potential readers. Take pains to pepper your prose with irregardless, for example, and watch the hate mail pour in. According to Kory Stamper, a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster, “Irregardless is one of those words that people love to hate. No one is lukewarm about irregardless. I don’t use it, but what I love about it that it has hung around on the periphery of English for over 200 years. It’s like this barnacle that you can’t get off the hull of the language, and I think that’s great.”

  • Every few years, it’s good to make sure that the novel, as a form, has a pulse; it might die on us without anyone ever noticing. Two new books by Peter Boxall look into the novel’s value and relevance these days, and the news is … well, it’s mixed. Let’s be real, things aren’t what they used to be. Ben Jeffery writes, “The novel is the characteristic literary vehicle of a (modern, capitalistic) culture defined by instability. In Boxall’s account, the novel form acts as a piece of psychic equipment through which humans are able to apprehend and adjust themselves to the unknown; as a kind of mechanism for coping with change … It nourishes our desire for order but at the same time it consistently draws our attention toward the ‘indistinctness at the heart of things,’ the sense in which reality is neither as solid nor as plain as we might imagine. This dual capacity for reinforcing and exceeding conceptual thought is what Boxall describes as the ‘formal genetics’ of the novel, ‘a genotype that underlies the phenotypical expressions of historical difference.’ Its value, it seems, is that it cultivates a kind of profound epistemic receptiveness.”
  • I struggle to think of a book more often singled out for derision than Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man, which has come to stand in for the failures of neoliberalism and the audacity of globalist thought. As it’s popularly understood, The End of History argued that global liberal democracy was bound to flourish, ushering in an age of prosperity as halcyon days descended, forever, upon planet Earth. But that’s not what the book is about at all, Paul Sagar writes. In fact, it was much more prescient than it’s given credit for: “Fukuyama never suggested that events would somehow stop happening. Just like any other sane person, he believed that history (with a small h), the continuation of ordinary causal events, would go on as it always had. Elections would be held, sports matches would be won and lost, wars would break out, and so on. The interesting question for Fukuyama was about History (with a big H), a term that, for him, picked out a set of concerns about the deep structure of human social existence … Just because humans could do no better than liberal capitalist democracy—could progress to no form of society that contained fewer inherent conflicts and contradictions—it didn’t mean that the unruly and competitive populations of such societies would sit still and be content with that. Late capitalist modernity might be the highest civilizational point we could achieve, because it contained the fewest contradictions. But there was strong reason to suspect that we’d slide off the top, back into History, down into something worse.”
  • How about that Lenin? Big reader. Loved books. Tolstoy: loved him. Goncharov: couldn’t get enough of him. Chernyshevsky: the best. But Tariq Ali notes that Lenin couldn’t hang with the avant-garde, and that this had surprising ramifications for the Russian Revolution: “Lenin found it difficult to make any accommodations to modernism in Russia or elsewhere. The work of the artistic avant-garde—Mayakovsky and the Constructivists—was not to his taste. In vain did the poets and artists tell him that they, too, loved Pushkin and Lermontov, but that they were also revolutionaries, challenging old art forms and producing something very different and new that was more in keeping with Bolshevism and the age of revolution. He simply would not budge. They could write and paint whatever they wanted, but why should he be forced to appreciate it? … Shortages of paper during the civil war led to fierce arguments. Should they publish propaganda leaflets or a new poem by Mayakovsky? Lenin insisted on the first option. Lunacharsky was convinced that Mayakovsky’s poem would be far more effective and, on this occasion, he won.”