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Another fine mess

Reader fan critic teacher reader fan.

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Ottessa Moshfegh
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Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the World - Tracy Kidder Wobbling between liked and really liked, perhaps because the context in which I'm reading the book underscores certain frustrations.

Lots of colleges do first-year reads now, where every incoming student is assigned some edifying novel or nonfiction or another which then prompts a series of campus conversations in that first semester. The book becomes a complicated segue, shaping the transition into college life and the critical, social debates that (at our best) drive the academic experience. (It's sort of like those city-reads, where the goal is to get the community engaged in conversations and discussion around issues raised by a text, and by the work itself. In fact, my institution aims to do both--whatever we select will serve as the new-student introduction to the liberal arts but also as a mechanism for various forms and forums of community discussion.)

These books tend to veer in two directions, best I can tell from studying various choices (and the materials college send along with the respective choice):

1. Ye olde the-Classics-will-sivilize-'em sort of selection -- you read bigtime Canon fodder, and you talk great books. A la Matthew Arnold, the goal is to refine the tastes, to engage in serious appreciation of why Great Books are Great, and as these are the best and most serious and loveliest evocations of the literary talent, they also pass on enduring truths and vital ideas about Humanity. And so on.


2. Ye newfangled deeply-didactic-social-issue-personal-memoir-serious-purpose work (whether fiction or non-) -- you read about a social problem, and the work comes to a clear point, driving home the key values and underlining the ethical stance one should take. Or even if the work is (tainted by the) ambiguous, you spend a lot of time in orientation and group learning sessions and big campus events underscoring the moral lesson you ought to be learning. And so on.

And while this is a bit of overstatement. . . a pox on both their houses. I have a stock line for my basic comp classes that books make lousy windows or mirrors, that such metaphors get us reading as if the sole point of reading is to crunch through the hard shell of language to get to the juicy Edifying center. I kind of want to get stuck on a turn of phrase, or to have an issue erupt in ways that we can't come to clear agreement about. I want debate, the difficult work of interpreting -- getting bogged down in the effort of trying to show why the text is saying A, and not B, as well as the useful critical interrogation of why someone ought to believe B, and not A. Too often, these first-year readings are chosen with great care, to avoid offense or confusion, to afford weaker readers (and, let's be honest, weaker instructors) a bit of little-league liberal arts. And so on. Texts (or our reading of them) become sermons about how to live, rather than opportunities for testing how we think, and argue, and come to some difficult understanding of how we want to live. (Let alone opportunities for delight, play, terror, confusion. . . )

None of this is Kidder's fault. But this tale--the varied, intriguingly-digressive account of Paul Farmer, a medical anthropologist and practicing doctor whose efforts on the part of the poor, particularly in Haiti, are astonishing, tireless, obsessive . . . or as the blurbs say, "inspiring" . . . well, it seems particularly prone to the problems I've laid out. Maybe it's unfair, but while I'm utterly impressed by Paul Farmer and his actions, I longed for some counter-voices. When Samantha Power wrote about Sergio Vieira de Mello, her gorgeous evocation of this dedicated servant of social justice and all of his work was also a nuanced articulation of the problems of aid and development -- the war of the pragmatist and the idealist, the conflict between greater goods (or, as is often the case, a range of different evils).

Maybe I'm longing for complexity about certain obvious Moral truths, looking to play devil's advocate when the issues (and the individual here) do not open themselves up to much ambiguity.. Inequality is bad, and should be fought every day, and never forgotten. Poverty is a crime, on-going and pervasive, and perverse. But I wonder how one instigates, incites, challenges, cajoles, convinces others to agree, and to act. I don't really need to read about people like Farmer to feel racked with guilt, regretful of what I've done and don't do. Farmer mocks this, too, and should--the WLs, or white liberals, fretting about themselves yet again. ("White Liberals" in his parlance really has nothing to do with race and everything to do with a [my]privileged distance.)

And even if, as Kidder (and Farmer) make explicit late in the book, the point is not to see "Paul as a model for what should be done" but instead an illustration "of what should be done," I wonder even more about how we should act, and whether there's room, even with a commonly-held objective, for on-going doubt and confusion about how to achieve it...

This book DOES lead one toward knowledge rarely, let alone rarely with such care, worked through--about Haiti, about disease and public health organizations, about TB and the new multi-resistant strains. Farmer isn't some simplistic saint, and Kidder's an excellent writer more than willing to open up his own misgivings and confusions. But I still come away wishing that Farmer wasn't the core. That it was REALLY a book centered on what should be done, rather than focusing so much on this one guy who does what should be done so doggedly. And I worry that--in classes, in small clusters of backpacked students during orientation, in various lectures and forums--if we select this book we might be defining a set of assertions rather than bringing our community into the challenges of trying to come to grips with the problems, and how we think and understand (and how we often don't think, and don't understand) them, and how in hell we go about coming together to solve them.