Recently by Stephen Akey:

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About halfway through his essay “Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool,” George Orwell offers a startling explanation for Leo Tolstoy’s notorious antipathy towards Shakespeare: Tolstoy is “trying to rob others of a pleasure he does not share.” Further, “Tolstoy does not know, perhaps, just what he misses in Shakespeare, but he is aware that he misses something, and he is determined that others shall be deprived of it as well.” As criticism of criticisms go, this one is nothing if not blunt. Is it possible that the basis of much of what we consider rational, disinterested critical discourse is really just a willful schadenfreude? That idea, in truth, is not too far from what masses of ordinary people have always believed: that cultural criticism and personal criticism are essentially the same and that to engage in either is merely to inflict pain under the pretense of honesty or concern.

Surely an idea as reductive as this needs no refutation. When in his essay “Charles Dickens” Orwell writes that Dickens’s whole message reduces to one “enormous platitude: If men would behave decently the world would be decent,” he isn’t trying to stick it to Dickens lovers, is he? He isn’t, in short, doing to Dickens exactly what he accused Tolstoy of doing to Shakespeare? Certainly not. Unless he is. More… “Let Me Ruin This for You”

Stephen Akey is the author of the memoirs College and Library and of a forthcoming collection of essays, Culture Fever.
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We all have fears, dark premonitions about the future, troubling recollections of the past, anxieties about the present that weigh on our minds and ruffle our sleep. Have I been a loving parent? Was I to blame for my divorce? What possessed me to vote for a Republican? Is she faking her orgasms? It may be that my life is very far from being the model of responsible engagement that I like to imagine it is, but there’s one particular fear that haunts me above all the other slippages, insecurities, and moral failings that must be held to my account: I worry that I’m Cecil Vyse.

Cecil Vyse, for those unfamiliar with E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View, is the priggish, snobbish, supercilious, sexless aesthete that Lucy Honeychurch almost makes the mistake of marrying in the 1908 novel. Even now, my Vysian tendencies betray me: “for those unfamiliar with E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View.“ Why should I assume, if only by implication, that anyone should be familiar with A Room with a View? Read it if you want to, don’t read it if you don’t. Ah, but things are rarely that simple for “artistic” spirits like Cecil and me. Against everything my education and reading have taught me, against everything I believe about respecting the subjectivity of all personal experience, I find it hard to avoid the conclusion I would like not to draw: I’m moved to rapture or wonder or fury by this or that artistic expression. You’re not. What’s wrong with you?

More… “I, Cecil Vyse”

Stephen Akey is the author of the memoirs College and Library and of a forthcoming collection of essays, Culture Fever.
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Towards the end of Gabriel García Márquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold, a newly graduated magistrate is sent to a small Colombian town to investigate the circumstances surrounding the murder of the novel’s ill-fated protagonist, Santiago Nasar. 25 years after the murder, the narrator, conducting his own investigation, travels to the Palace of Justice in Riohacha to examine the magistrate’s report. Although the narrator can’t find the magistrate’s name on any of the surviving papers, “it was obvious that he was a man burning with the fever of literature. He had doubtless read the Spanish classics and a few Latin ones, and he was quite familiar with Nietzsche, who was the fashionable author among magistrates of his time . . . He was so perplexed by the enigma that fate had touched him with, that he kept falling into lyrical distractions that ran contrary to the rigor of his profession.”

More… “He’s Got the Fever”

Stephen Akey is the author of the memoirs College and Library and of a forthcoming collection of essays, Culture Fever.
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Scholars have been laboring for more than a century to transform Emily Dickinson’s faint pencil jottings on envelopes, letters, and sewn sheets into accurate and readable editions of some or all of her 1,800 poems. Recently, there has been a counter movement to return Dickinson’s verse to something like the textual fluidity of its original state, which in practice is rather like returning nonspecialists to the state of dazed incomprehension experienced by the small circle of her earliest readers. The online Emily Dickinson Archive, which reproduces the manuscripts with all their wayward calligraphy and unresolved word choices, is a necessary and laudable enterprise, but the last thing it does is make her poetry more accessible. You thought it was hard reading Emily Dickinson before? It just got harder.

More… “Reading Emily Dickinson”

Stephen Akey is the author of the memoirs College and Library and of a forthcoming collection of essays, Culture Fever.
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It’s hard to know exactly what moment we occupy in regard to the New Atheism and its concomitant backlash. Are we in the backlash of the backlash? Or the backlash of the backlash of the backlash? As Tim Whitmarsh shows in his recent Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World, this debate is about two thousand years old; I don’t propose to resolve it today or tomorrow. I do, however, have a modest suggestion: Instead of riling up ourselves and our antagonists any further, we atheists might direct at least some of our righteousness into good-humored mockery of a perfectly harmless figure whose feelings can’t be hurt: God.

Admittedly, it’s almost impossible not to rile up people on this subject, but short of taking a vow of silence, atheists don’t have much choice. While muzzling ourselves in deference to the sensitivities of believers is not a reasonable expectation, expressing full-blown contempt for those same sensitivities isn’t much better. Might there be a middle path between excessive deference on the one hand and hurtful belligerence on the other? Yes, there is, and Friedrich Nietzsche marked it out in his gloriously intemperate polemic The Antichrist. More… “How To Laugh At God”

Stephen Akey is the author of the memoirs College and Library and of a forthcoming collection of essays, Culture Fever.
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My first idea was to compile a brief and brisk user’s guide to recent rock memoirs, a sort of Consumer Reports of the best and the worst, perhaps grading them with an A minus or a C plus, the way Robert Christgau used to do with his surveys of pop records in the once-influential Village Voice. So I started with Keith Richards’s Life, Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, and John Fogerty’s Fortunate Son before realizing that this whimsical vacation in reading was likely to turn into an unfinishable slog. Even as I read Keith’s (A), Bob’s (A plus), and John’s (C minus) revelatory or not-so-revelatory accounts of the rock ’n’ roll life, more kept issuing from the presses. Carrie Brownstein (Sleater-Kinney), Viv Albertine (the Slits), Donald Fagan (Steely Dan), Steve Katz (Blood, Sweat and Tears), Greg Allman (the Allman Brothers Band), Peter Hook (New Order), Bernard Summer (New Order), Brian Wilson (the Beach Boys), Mike Love (the Beach Boys), Nile Rodgers (Chic), Richard Hell (Television, the Voidoids), Kristin Hersh (Throwing Muses), and the drummer from David Bowie’s Spiders from Mars band (Woody Woodmansey): all have had their say, and that’s not even to mention continuing contributions to the genre by such heavy hitters as Bruce Springsteen, Robbie Robertson, Chrissie Hynde, Peter Townshend, Neil Young, Elvis Costello, and Morrissey. Where would I ever find the time to read all of these musicians’ books if I was ever going to read anything else? Or listen to their records? Or vacuum my living room? And then I read Petal Pusher by Laurie Lindeen and decided: the others can wait. More… “It’s the Drummer That Matters”

Stephen Akey is the author of the memoirs College and Library and of a forthcoming collection of essays, Culture Fever.
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Once we were mighty. Once we were legion. Once we reigned over colleges and universities like demigods. Well, OK, we English majors were never that important, except maybe in our own eyes. According to a report in the New York Times, degrees awarded in English at American universities fell from seven point six percent of the total in 1971 to three point one percent of the total in 2011 — which goes to show, I suppose, that the golden age was never quite so golden. Still, better the periphery than where we are now — the periphery of the periphery.

One of the less-happy consequences of my decision to major in English 40 years ago is that I haven’t met many (or any) people who share my enthusiasm for the writings of John Dryden. Another is that I make about as much money as a janitor and live in one of the most expensive cities in the world. I knew what I signed up for. My life sentence as an English major has taught me not to care overly much about what are laughingly called “the good things in life.” For better or worse, I can’t look at the glossy advertisements in The New Yorker without a feeling of cognitive dissonance. How could anyone who reads the poems and short stories and criticism in that magazine really want all that crap? If that’s a prejudice, the fault lies in me, not in my discipline, which includes plenty of practitioners with a somewhat more realistic financial outlook than my own. Anyway, for me, it’s less a discipline than a passion. I expect that that beleaguered three point one percent on campuses today feel much the same way. Against the advice of their parents, the social pressure of their peers, and the severely utilitarian direction of American society, they obdurately go on piling up their useless, unremunerative literary courses. See the trouble you get into when you listen to your soul? More… “English Majors’ Twilight”

Stephen Akey is the author of the memoirs College and Library and of a forthcoming collection of essays, Culture Fever.
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My hero is fearless, proud, resolute, farseeing, self-sacrificing, and profoundly engaged in the struggle against tyranny and oppression. He’s also several hundred feet tall (when he wants to be), does celestial cartwheels when flying between the earth and sun, can turn into a cormorant when occasion arises, and despite his onerous responsibilities as a leader of men, manages to be pretty good family man, though his spouse is Sin and his offspring is Death. He speaks some of the most beautiful English ever composed, even when just muttering to himself. He’s John Milton’s Satan. More… “My Hero, Satan”

Stephen Akey is the author of the memoirs College and Library and of a forthcoming collection of essays, Culture Fever.
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When I was 13 or 14 I spent a certain amount of time in my local record store in suburban Connecticut contemplating the cover of Projections by the Blues Project: five proto-hippies hanging out on the corner looking slick with their polka dot shirts and sideburns. And that guy with the coolly arrogant stare with his finger hooked in his belt loop – who was that? Kooper, the most famous one, I recognized from his association with Bob Dylan, and Katz I knew from the covers of two Blood, Sweat and Tears albums, a band that had even then achieved far more success than the already defunct Blues Project. But the swaggering hipster who caught my eye – that was Danny.

I met Danny Kalb in 1996 at a party in Park Slope, where he had lived for some years after the breakup of the Blues Project and a spell in California that had not been good for his mental health. Danny had founded the band in 1965, making the progression from Greenwich Village folkie and resident guitar virtuoso to plugged-in rock and roller. For a while the Blues Project, with their progressive blending of blues, rock, pop, and jazz, looked like they might be the Next Big Thing, but it never panned out; as Danny once told me, he had been a minor rock star for a couple of years. Most people agree that neither Projections nor its under produced predecessor Live at the Café Au Go Go really did justice to the band. Like many a cult band, they never quite got down their vibe on wax. I prefer their third and last album, Reunion in Central Park (1972), which comes closest to capturing their almost-as-tight-as-a-jazz-band-but-not-obsessed-about-it essence. The boxed set The Blues Project Anthology (1997), in the grab-bag way of the band, contains a rich miscellany of rockers, pop ballads, jazzy instrumentals, blues standards, and throwaways, but I can’t improve on the superb liner notes by John Platt and anyway what I really want to talk about is Danny, the only rock star, minor or otherwise, I’ve ever known.
More… “A Minor Rock Star”

Stephen Akey is the author of the memoirs College and Library and of a forthcoming collection of essays, Culture Fever.
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Shagga glowered, a fearsome sight to see. “Shagga son of Dolf likes this not. Shagga will go with the boyman, and if the boyman lies, Shagga will chop off his manhood.”

No, that’s not a parody of A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin; it is A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin. And if I begin my discussion of what is in some respects a remarkable creative achievement with a sample of bad prose, that’s because A Game of Thrones is virtually an encyclopedia of bad prose. It has bad exposition, bad dialogue, bad sex scenes, bad nature description, even bad free indirect discourse, to use the term for the narrative device Martin employs to advance the plot while taking us inside the heads of his principal characters.

More… “Shagga Son of Dolf Likes this Not”

Stephen Akey is the author of the memoirs College and Library and of a forthcoming collection of essays, Culture Fever.
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