Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Into the Wild (short essay prompt)

Cover of "Into the Wild"Cover of Into the Wild
In the book we read over summer, Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer admits that Chris McCandless was rash, but insists "he wasn't a nutcase, he wasn't a sociopath, he wasn't an outcast. McCandless was something else — although precisely what is hard to say. A pilgrim, perhaps" (85).

Your question:

What precisely was McCandless? Use one of Krakauer's terms or invent your own term. Choose your term carefully, and note passages as you read. Your answer to the question is your central claim. Support this claim with evidence from the text and explain how the language of the quote — the connotations of individual words in the quotes you cite — prove your claim to be valid.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

How to Read the Kindle

I just watched a horrifying commercial from Amazon. Here is the commercial and then a short reading of that commercial:

As the narrative opens, a young man stands holding his Kindle. An attractive woman walks out into the tablua rasa white space of the advertising world (and is it possible to read that as anything other than the intellectual vaccuum in which they both live?), and asks, "Hey where are you going?" When she invites him to the bookstore to get a book that "just came out," he declines. (Apparently the book's not the only thing that's just come out). He is ordering a "new book" on his Kindle "in less than 60 seconds." "Oh my god," she responds, "That's the book I was going to get." Wow. What a coincidence! The commercial ends with her reading his Kindle, while shushing him with a warning finger. Here are some secret messages the commercial contains: 

  1. Speed is good. Would downloading the book be worth the wait of, say, 3 minutes? 
  2. Novelty is also good. The book both people want is brand-spanking new. That it's a best seller is implied by the new-ness and the fact that they both want it.  (Fun fact: "best sellers" are determined by books pre-ordered, not books sold. Their label is a self-fulfilling prophecy).
  3. The world and the people within it are things to be avoided. There is literally no world in the commercial. The actors provide the only clue we are viewing a 3-D space (though, ironically, the actors themselves are decidedly 2-D). Bookstores are things to be avoided. So, too, are people apparently since the the two actors are looking at the screen and not each other as the commercial ends.
  4. Words are bad. The commercial script segues into a non-verbal cue from the woman telling the man to shut up, followed by airy and mindless la-la-la music without actual words.

The book that both actors want desperately to pick up (and not necessarily to read) is Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken.  The book came out last year — 18, 489, 600 seconds ago — and was, you guessed it: a New York Times best seller and a "make book" from Amazon. It was their "book of the month" and a book they have tried in other ways to "make" you buy. An odd and dated choice to display for a TV ad you wonder? I think the ad people are trying to market this device to non-readers, a demographic they are not only appealing to but also helping to create. 

I'm not anti-technology. (In fact, I am typing these words on a computer). I've just never seen Amazon so nakedly attack bookstores, community, personal contact, and words themselves. Bookstores are vanishing rapidly and funding for libraries is always under threat. Outside of schools, what public spaces will allow people to gather, to read, to talk, and to think?

Monday, August 15, 2011

Suburban Castles

Very recently, my family and I made a big move to be much closer to where we work. For various reasons, I can't tell you exactly where we live now, but suffice it to say that it's a "leafy suburban paradise" I discovered North of a charming babbling Brook. And it's increasingly populated by what can only be described as modern-day castles, resplendent with turrets, and which seem to mushroom overnight.

The purpose behind this disclosure is to welcome you to a new place and give you a sense of what your own blogging could look like this year in American Studies. If you look at the post below (written in the Spring), notice that Mr. O'Connor, my eloquent partner, utilized his intelligent cellular telephone to snap a photograph and upload it to the Inter-Webs. We are living in the Future, truly.

Importantly, Mr. O'Connor's post demonstrates that we can find subject matter for our blogs just by looking at the world around us and recognizing distinctly American themes. In contrast to other cultures around the world, Americans are often characterized by their strident individualism. In Finland, for example, before eating lunch in a large group, the Finns will dutifully line up to wash hands. No exceptions, and no one questions this behavior. Yet in the States, note how washing one's hands is considered to be a personal choice, not so much an obligation toward society, even though we are all aware of the public health issues.

As I walked through the streets of my new town, I was struck by the examples of both conformity and individualism in the way people constructed their homes. And I don't mean "constructed" in the typical fashion evidenced by North Shore tear-downs. Instead, in our course, we often talk about constructions in the way Americans might tailor their surroundings to send a particular message, or in the way media companies, novelists, or even historians work to create a compelling narrative.

Click here to look at the images I took with my portable talking machine (all of the houses are located on the same street), and draw some conclusions of your own with regard to the two themes mentioned above. Or, if you see other uniquely American details in these photos, please add those to the comments section of this post. Welcome, and please join the conversation.