Book descriptions that scare me

Anyone who’s read this blog knows I’m a fan of foreign fiction. As a result, I pay attention to book awards involving such books, including the BTBA. But when this year’s winner was announced it got me thinking about things that tend to cause me to prejudge a book.

The NPR review of the winner, Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s Seiobo There Below, notes the book has “[n]ear-infinite sentences in a nonlinear narrative shuttling across time and space.” How long are these sentences? The “at times vertiginous sentences can extend to eight pages or more.” Perhaps the key word here is “nonlinear.” Wheter it’s becaues I’m an illiterati or for some other reason, I’ve generally found so-called nonlinear books to be more of a fatiguing undertaking than I want. Nonnlinear also tends to strike me postmodernism.

Yet it’s not the only word I consider a tip off that can keep me away from reading a book. While my prejudices predilections keep me away from certain genres (horror, adventure, self-help, mysteries), these words can cause me to filter books that are in categories I like. My list includes:

“Dreamlike,” “surreal, “stream of consciousness” — These, too, evoke a sense of there being perhaps a bit too much postmodernity for my tastes. Granted, they aren’t always used in the context but they clearly are a signal to me to investigate a book further before reading it.

“Passionate,” “love story,” or, worse yet, the two combined — My reasoning is quite simple. Love stories are, of course, romances and “romance” inevitably makes me think “harlequin.” I know that’s guilt by what may well be an entirely unwarranted association but even setting that aside I’m not one of those who make this genre the biggest moneymaker for publishers.

“Genre-bending,” “genre-blurring” — A hint of postmodernism but also indicative of an author or publisher who doesn’t really want to slot the book into a genre for fear the classification will hamper book sales. For me, though, I prefer the genre label because, for example, I like certain science fiction but I don’t like fantasy. While I admit at times the effort to blend or blur genres works quite well, I’ve also found that without looking closely I may be holding a fantasy or even romance novel.

“Ambitious, “epic,” “definitive” — Unlike the majority of the preceding terms, these words are easily used for both fiction and nonfiction. But regardless of which realm they’re used in, they mean one thing to me: long; often really, really long. I’ve only got so much time left to read books. That means if you’re talking about a commitment to 500+ pages, I’ll probably go elsewhere. Of course, it’s fair to ask whether these words scare me only because of my own mortality?

There’s plenty of other terms out there that will cause me to look the other way, regardless of whether it’s on a book jacket, in an advertisement or a book review. But if we’re not reading what we want to read, what’s the sense?


Why can’t people just sit and read books and be nice to each other?

David Baldacci, The Camel Club

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Potential effects of ‘sincerely held religious beliefs’

I have a number of problems with the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision on health insurance coverage of contraceptives and religious freedom. But the concept that corporations can freely exercise religion isn’t the main one. I’m more concerned about what I perceive to be far broader and more problematic issues.

The decision is framed in terms of the corporate owners’ “sincerely held religious beliefs.” But Justice Alito’s majority opinion also points out that “it is not for us to say that their religious beliefs are mistaken or insubstantial.” Either way, this concept seems to raise some difficult issues. (As an aside, might not an atheist have a sincerely held, albeit not “religious” belief directly stemming from exercising their right to freedom of religion?)

What if a “belief” is wrong? Let’s say someone has a sincerely held religious belief that vaccines cause autism. Less hypothetically, many sincerely believe in young earth creationism. Science has repeatedly shown that these ideas are demonstrably incorrect. Yet being objectively erroneous apparently is irrelevant to whether the belief can be a basis to seek exemption from federal law.

Without regard to whether a belief can be objectively evaluated, the ramifications are significant. As Justice Ginsburg asks in her dissent, does the decision “extend to employers with religiously grounded objections to blood transfusions (Jehovah’s Witnesses); antidepressants (Scientologists); medications derived from pigs, including anesthesia, intravenous fluids, and pills coated with gelatin (certain Muslims, Jews, and Hindus); and vaccinations (Christian Scientists, among others)?” And it isn’t limited to health care.

What if someone claims that complying with minimum wage or equal pay laws or hiring people who accept evolution violates a sincerely held religious belief? Can someone who sincerely believes the Bible is the inerrant word of God use slaves in their business instead of paying employees? Granted, the government’s interests in the context of my hypotheticals may be compelling (which the Hobby Lobby majority said wasn’t the case for the contraceptive regulations) or it’s used the least restrictive way of achieving them (another area where the regulations fell short). That doesn’t mean there isn’t a potential problem for individuals.

Moreover, given that courts aren’t supposed to decide whether religious beliefs are “mistaken or insubstantial,” how do they determine what beliefs are worthy of accommodation and which aren’t? Isn’t that not only a value judgment but one where courts may be favoring one religion’s tenets over those of another? Regardless of corporate “personhood,” this decision could more deeply enmesh the government in assessing our individual beliefs.


Accommodations to religious beliefs or observances … must not significantly impinge on the interests of third parties.

Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (June 30, 2014), (Ginsburg, J. dissenting)

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Weekend Edition: 6-27

Interesting Reading in the Interweb Tubes

  • Prey (“Unbeknownst to me, I wasn’t preparing to survive another attack, but rather to execute one.”)
  • Why I’m so happy to be Foyled again (“Imagine getting to the end of your days with a lifetime of reading behind you and there being nothing to show for all those experiences save a slab of plastic, the contents of which are only licensed to you and could be cut off on a whim at any moment.”)

Blog Headline of the Week

Best Medical Advice of the Year

Bookish Linkage

Nonbookish Linkage


I woke up thinking a very pleasant thought. There is lots left in the world to read.

Nicholson Baker, The Anthologist

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Is there irony in the Supreme Court’s buffer zone ruling?

Among the big items in Thursday’s news cycle was the U.S. Supreme Court striking down a Massachusetts law creating a buffer zone around abortion clinics. It didn’t take long for a number of observers to pick up on an unusual perspective on the decision. Federal law makes it illegal to “parade, stand, or move in processions or assemblages in the Supreme Court Building or grounds, or to display … a flag, banner, or device designed or adapted to bring into public notice a party, organization, or movement.” Right now, that’s a 252 by 98 foot buffer zone, compared to a 35-foot radius in the Massachusetts law

buffer zoneAlmost any sensible person sees this as ironic. But who says the law has to be sensible? It actually can distinguish the two.

The Massachusetts statute said no one could “enter or remain” on a “public way or sidewalk” within 35 feet of any portion of an entrance, exit or driveway of an abortion clinic. (It excluded people entering and leaving the clinic, employees, and anyone using the sidewalk or street solely to go someplace other than the clinic.) Among the things that bothered the Supreme Court was that the statute restricted activity on public sidewalks, long recognized as ideal areas for First Amendment activities. Moreover, it didn’t matter what a person in the buffer zone was doing. If, for whatever reason, someone wanted to eat lunch or read a book within the 35 feet, they were breaking the law.

The federal law, 40 U.S.C. § 6135, seems to raise similar questions. In fact, in 1983 the Supreme Court held the statute unconstitutional — when it came to public sidewalks. As a result, subsequent court decisions allowed the statute to apply to the plaza and steps of the Supreme Court building. They reasoned that, unlike public sidewalks, the plaza hasn’t historically been a place for public expression. Thus, the public sidewalk issue key to the Massachusetts decision disappears.

The federal law also can be distinguished because, for example, it doesn’t preclude simply entering and strolling around in the plaza. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s constitutional. In fact, last June a federal judge said that even as applied to the plaza the statute violated the Constitution because absolutely bans the activities it covers. In other words, it doesn’t matter why someone might be gathering in the plaza or why a group of people may be parading in it. Just two days later, the Supreme Court adopted a regulation barring “demonstrations” on its grounds that are “reasonably likely to draw a crowd or onlookers.”

That regulation doesn’t change the law itself. The decision invalidating the law is now pending in a federal appeals court. It will be interesting to see if the Supreme Court ultimately ends up hearing the case and, if so, whether it will sense any irony in upholding one law and striking the other.


This clause [precluding assembling or parading on Supreme Court grounds] could apply to, and provide criminal penalties for … even, for example, the familiar line of preschool students from federal agency daycare centers, holding hands with chaperones, parading on the plaza on their first field trip to the Supreme Court.

U.S. District Judge Beryl A. Howell,
Hodge v. Talkin (June 11, 2013)

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In the minority — again

It’s surprising sometimes what the federal government looks at. As the name suggests, one of its latest reports — the American Time Use Survey — looks at the activities that make up our days. Among other things, it shows I’m once again in the minority, this time in “leisure time.”

According to the study, Americans age 15 and older spend an average of 2.57 hours a day on weekdays watching television and 3.24 hours on weekends. By my math, that’s just more than 19 hours a week. And people in my age group spend even more time watching TV, about 22 ½ hours. Unfortunately, I can’t find a definition of what constitutes watching television so it isn’t clear if something like streaming television programs is included or falls within using computers for leisure. Regardless, television doesn’t have much competition. The second ranked activity is “socializing and communicating,” which we spend about half an hour doing each weekday and double that during the weekend.

One of the more distressing items is that those 15 to 19 spend more than 5 hours watching TV on weekends but only 8 ½ minutes reading. And with the exception of slight drop for those 25 to 34, at least the amount of time spent reading steadily increases. Still, the most any age group averages reading on weekends is two hours and just under an hour on a weekday — but that’s people age 75 and older. People in my age group spend less than half an hour reading any day. In contrast, I probably spend as much time reading as others my age watch television and about as much time watching TV as they spend reading. But, as renowned philosopher Sly Stone put it, “different strokes for different folks.”

By the way, although the numbers are skewed because not everybody works, Americans spend an average of about 4 ½ hours working each day during the week, compared to more than 5 hours in leisure activities. The “activity’ we spend the most time on is sleeping, about 8 ½ hours a day.


I still find each day too short for all the thoughts I want to think, all the walks I want to take, all the books I want to read, and all the friends I want to see.

John Burroughs, The Writings of John Burroughs, Vol. 17

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Weekend Edition: 6-21

Interesting Reading in the Interweb Tubes

  • Was This Student Dangerous? (“…despite clear and repeated instructions, the undergrad was writing things that had nothing to do with class assignments — things that made the other students afraid.”)

Blog Headline of the Week

Arrests of the Week

  • A San Diego “tagger” was arrested on felony charges for tagging the courtroom in which he was awaiting his hearing on misdemeanor tagging charges
  • A 20-year-old woman was arrested for soliciting sex in a Massachusetts public library

Most Depressing Survey of the Week

Bookish Linkage

Nonbookish Linkage


The man in the suit just bought a new car
With the profit he’s made off your dreams

Traffic, Title Track, The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys

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