Sunday, December 02, 2012

"Why Atheists Love Breasts"

Brought to my attention recently is a new book by a young woman writing under the nom de plume Rinth de Shadley. Going under the faintly provocative and intriguing title WhyAtheists Love Breasts, the book is a collection of internet musings apparently previously published by the author on her blog. It's a new world we're living in.

Times were, a collection of essays like this would represent the efforts of a writer spanning a generation, vetted by editors who had readerships to please and bills to pay. Taken as a whole, its pieces would typically represent a bridge across a period in social and political history, and plot a trajectory in the growth and maturation of the author's personal philosophy. Generally speaking, because of the requirements of publishing prior to the turn of the century, a collection like Why Atheists Love Breasts would not have been possible.

Why Atheists Love Breasts is a new paradigm in that, as a collection, it represents a moment in time in every respect. It is a snapshot of one person's concerns, considerations, and philosophical trappings over an extremely narrow span of, presumably, a handful of years; all undertaken at the first bloom of adulthood. With very few exceptions, it's hard to imagine a time when a publisher would have taken a chance on a volume like this, even now. Self-publishing, both as a function of the blogosphere and on-demanding printing and shipping, make collections like this a possibility. So in most regards, this is something new, from a new kind of author, and I think it's best considered in that vein.

Before discussing the subject matter itself, I'd like to wonder out loud if it might not have been an interesting exercise for the author to have taken her blog entries and concatenated them into longer, formal essays on a handful of matters critical to her at this point in her life. That said, I understand there's also something to be said for presenting one's thoughts as they occurred to one and were captured in prose, and in that, this format does a fine job of framing each instance of Athena as it springs from the head of Zeus. In any case, I mention it not in an effort to detract from the value of the book, but to offer the author a potential challenge in some future effort.

The subject matter is divided by theme into about a half-dozen bailiwicks that run from light, devil-may-care observations on the eternal interactions between the two sexes, to discourses on scientific themes, to more trenchant moments in which the author mulls over issues of political, religious, and philosophical significance. My attitudes tended to vary with the nature of the topic. Where she wrote of personal and social experiences, I found myself admiring her self-possession and courage; she's living life but keeping an eye on the larger picture, and I wish I could have learned from her example myself 20 years ago. On matters of science, she's informative and has a gentle touch with conveying ideas without becoming dull and didactic, and I think that's a skill she'll do well to mine as time goes by.

When it came to philosophical matters, I found it hard as a reader twice the age of the author not to be condescending when reading such essays in this collection. But the fact is, by and large, the thinking reminded me of how deciding how the world works (or ought to) was for me at that age, and probably for most other people: an issue comes to one's attention, one asks oneself how one feels about it, realizes how one feels (and feels strongly), then casts about for justifications for the feeling, and typically discounts opposing views with ridicule rather than considering their merits, if any. Not often as I read such essays did I get the sense the process was: an issues comes to one's attention, one asks oneself how one ought to feel about it, and comes to a conclusion by weighing the evidence and ramifications as well as by finding out what others think and why. Quite often I felt that 'the next obvious question' that might have led to realizations that would have caused the author to modify or even reconsider her conclusions, was not asked or even identified as such. (A case in point: the author holds the answer to her book's eponymous question to be that atheists love breasts because they are materialists. Now I understand this to be a joke, but it's one aimed at making a deeper point. Set the joke aside for a moment. It seems a strange jumping-off point to use for criticizing aspects of atheism because theists also seem to love breasts; by and large every bit as much as atheists. But the author neglects to examine this parallel phenomenon and ask why that should be, since they aren't strict materialists; in so doing, she fails to promote her conclusion to the status of a considered viewpoint backed by reflection, and leaves it standing simply as an accusation. I saw this limitation frequently in the political section of the book.) So I think for older readers, a good deal of book may seem naive.

That said, I'm of the opinion that older readers, while not barred from the party at the door, are not the intended primary audience of this book (or the blog from which it derives). I think Ms de Shadley is speaking to others of her own generation first and foremost, in nearly all instances. Since it's largely about working out who one is in the world, that's entirely justified, and a collection like this stands to inform readers setting out on the seas of life, love, and careers, both in its advice, and in providing a template for collecting their own impressions on what they think and feel. That's important and empowering.

Speaking as an older reader, I'll be interested to see follow-up volumes from ten, fifteen, and twenty years in the future.


Scott Palmer, Ph.D. said...

An outstanding review. I enjoyed reading it.

As the author's doting (but completely unbiased) uncle, I do feel that you set the bar a little high by saying that in years past, such a book would have contained "the efforts of a writer spanning a generation ... a bridge across a period in social and political history."

Have you read the drivel that fills any book by New York Times columnist Tom Friedman? Compared to that, Ms. de Shadley's musings seem like teachings of the Buddha. :-)

jim said...

Having worked in publishing, as a salaried editor, a freelance editor, and as (thrice) an author, I know this:

You show up at a publisher with a built-in audience that will buy what you write, the publisher doesn't *care* what you write, they will publish it.

This is the big shift the Internet has brought to publishing. You can build an audience on the Internet and deliver it to a publisher all gift wrapped.

It's like when I worked in radio and my program director said, "If pigs oinking got better ratings than the music we play, I'd program the pigs 24/7."

barefoot hiker said...

Heya, Scott :)

Well, I didn't mean to say everything that gets into actual print is stellar... just that I meets someone's needs. :)

barefoot hiker said...

Hey, Jim :)

We're in accord, I think. My point was only that much before about, oh, 1995 or so, having your opinions and discourse presented to the public meant essentially having it vetted by the editor of a newspaper or a magazine. Might have been the Times, or the New Yorker, or the Tri-County Advertizer. But it had to pass muster in that it was either going to put food on someone else's table or at least not be so obnoxious as to keep food from landing on it—particularly if one were paid for the piece. That used to be the hoop people had to jump through, over and over, to put together a body of small opinion pieces or short stories that someone would publish and pay to advertize (once you had a rep, it was different, but that's usually how you got one in the first place). I imagine there are exceptions to any rule, but there are also publishers who go broke. :)

Now, of course, we're empowered to be our own editor and publisher (hey, here we are, right?), even to the point of print. That change fascinates me, just like the advent of digital photography freed us from a lot of the technological weight holding us down. A person could be cynical and say it stands to fill the world with awful, useless books (and here I would like to quickly disassociate that statement from the book discussed in the post!), but I tend to look at it from the point of view that pretty much any book will find its audience. I've been looking for a book on the bridge designs of Frank Barber, for instance, but not much luck. I keep hoping some nerd like me who's in the know will write one, stick it on some print-on-demand site, and then we can both be happy. :) Not something possible even ten years ago.