World Book Night: A few more recommendations with sharper edges

My suggestions were just discussed by MPR’s Kerri Miller and her guests on the “Daily Circuit.”

These books are not for everyone but are quite short and readable–and they have a bit more depth and bite than most of those on the list. Learning to Drive by Katha Pollitt, These are reflective and self-critical essays by an aging feminist. Facing Unpleasant Facts by George Orwell. George Packer’s recent anthology resuscitates the prickly social critic for contemporary readers. Finally, Dark Water by W.E.B. DuBois. Written in 1920, it was 75 years ahead of its time. He use autobiography to explicate issues of race, gender, globalism, and class.  No one since has done it better.

Mark Twain & George Orwell + Blood, Sweat & Tears = A Competent & Readable Writer

 Mark Twain’s little rules. These require that the author shall:
  1. Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.
  2. Use the right word, not its second cousin.
  3. Eschew surplusage.
  4. Not omit necessary details.
  5. Avoid slovenliness of form.
  6. Use good grammar.
  7. Employ a simple and straightforward style.
George Orwell’s six little rules on writing:
  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Do not ever use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say something outright barbarous.

 

This ain’t your stereotypical professor in tweed jacket, pipe in hand . . .

Torstenson 2014

Good words: A favored professor’s favorite books

This post was first published in the St. Paul Pioneer Press on March 6, 2014.

Metropolitan State University’s alumni magazine, Buzz, asked graduates for their favorite professors in the school’s history. As one of those chosen, the editor asked me to pick four favorite books for an upcoming story.

There is no finer homage to a professor than to live on as a favorite teacher in the memories of former students. What is especially gratifying about this recognition is that apple-polishing is no longer of any value.

Now that I’m nearly 70 years old, this list of books differs from those I might have chosen at age 30 or 50. Even so, I was surprised at the enduring influence these authors have had on my life and times. I offer these books because they were particularly edifying for me, and may be for others as well.

The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt, Albert Camus

For more than 45 years, the fiction and essays of Camus have provided me insight and inspiration. While a man of letters, he was also a man of action.

He joined the underground French Resistance and courageously fought Nazi occupation. In this book, he rejects murder as a political tactic, whether committed by terrorists or revolutionaries. Being a realist and understanding human frailties, he advocates rebellion rather than revolution. He concisely defines the rebel and rebellion: “What is a rebel but a man [person] who says no”; and, “I rebel — therefore we exist.”

The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, Reinhold Niebuhr

In the ’60s and ’70s, I was an unreconstructed student radical, a naive utopian. When reality sobered me up, Niebuhr saved me from cynicism and despair. He wrote, “The preservation of a democratic civilization requires the wisdom of the serpent and the harmlessness of the dove. The children of light must be armed with the wisdom of the children of darkness but remain free from their malice.”

Written in 1943, the book was a vindication of democracy in a dark time: “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”

Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil, W.E.B. Du Bois

Du Bois wrote this long-forgotten gem in 1920. The most moving chapters are autobiographical, including one about being a servant at a Lake Minnetonka resort. Chapter after chapter demonstrate that he was a man ahead of his time. “The Souls of White Folk” is a founding document of Whiteness studies, and “The Hands of Ethiopia” earned him the accolade “father of Pan-Africanism.”

His feminism is evident in “Damnation of Women,” where he recalls the four women of his boyhood — “They existed not for themselves, but for men.” From Du Bois, I learned the art and craft of using auto-biography as a tool for sociological analysis, and that activism is for the long haul (some 65 years for him).

Facing Unpleasant Facts, George Orwell

While best known for 1984 and Animal Farm, his legacy more likely will be as the 20th century’s finest essayist in the English language. Orwell had a single-minded devotion to truth. In this collection, we get hints of his experiments with truth: as a colonial police officer in Burma, a dishwasher in Paris, a hobo in London, a chronicler of England’s industrial working class, and a participant in the Spanish Civil War.

His biography, shaped by world history, led him “to make political writing into an art.” Orwell’s intellectual honesty and his prose style have been the standard by which I have measured myself.

I leave you with the poet John Ciardi’s classic adieu, “Good words to you.”

A “Private and Confidential” letter: “There is a widespread belief that you have faked your illness for these many years.”

I received this malicious and hateful letter yesterday. A good sociologist is both a participant in, and an observer of, the human comedy. Yesterday, I was a participant; today, I am an observer.

The letter is a case study in the sociology of gossip. Gossip is a form of social control and contains a moral judgment. It is what Tracy Wilson calls “malice with a purpose”—to destroy a rival’s reputation. Gossip is often motivated by what Max Scheler described as ressentiment, hateful assertions fueled by feelings of social impotence. This “friend” foolishly miscalculated the damage that the letter would do, imagining an outcome conjured up only in the author’s delusional and subservient psyche. How little you know me. I’ve always been, and always will be, impervious to all  efforts to break my spirit. Bring it on!  

Dear Monte,

I am contacting you because I have a great deal of respect for you and feel that you have a right to know about a situation that effects [sic] you very much.

I will be blunt and get right to the point. I have heard from several members of the Metro State community that there is a widespread belief that you have faked your illness for these many years. When I was told this by one person she said you had done it for all of the awards and recognition that you got because people thought you were going to die soon. When I asked another person about it, they said that everyone at Metro knew your illness was a lie for a long time.

There was even a friend of mine who told me that they went to a conference and someone from another university asked how you were doing. My friend told them you were doing better, and the other person laughed. When asked why they were laughing, they replied that they had heard from someone else connected to Metro that you were never sick to begin with. These stories are all over the place, and it makes me heartsick to know that people can be so cruel.

I am very sorry to tell you of such a thing, and to have to be anonymous about it. I hope you will understand that there are sometimes important reasons for this. And even though I know this news may hurt deeply, I felt you had a right to know about this.

Sincerely,

A Friend

 

“Hey, what are you doing here? I thought I’d read your obituary!”

That tongue-in-cheek quip came from a TV reporter who had spotted me at a legislative hearing a couple of years ago. On my 65th birthday—February 17, 2010—I got a call informing me that I had a rare, terminal cancer. The median survival rate from diagnosis is 14 months. That was four years ago this week. By year five, the mortality rate is 95 percent. I hope to beat the dealer again.

Some claim that “Monte Bute” is a stage name. That is one of the few things I have not concocted. Having been stigmatized as an incorrigible juvenile delinquent, I’ve spent a lifetime giving my spoiled identity a do-over. Truth is that each of us has an existential freedom to script ourselves and our storyline—or to haphazardly allow others to do it for us.

Charles Lemert writes of the “mysterious power of social structures.” Far more than most of us care to admit, those powers define who we are and shape the contours of our lives. Too many of us live in a simulated reality analogous to the movie “The Matrix.”

Much of the time, this socially constructed reality seems immutable. It assigns us, for good or ill, identities and social roles. All too often, we accept without question those identities and play the roles we are dealt. A sociological aphorism to keep in mind: Either we “take” roles or we “make” roles. In other words, we have a fate or we have a destiny.

“Monte Bute,” a character I conjured up back in the day, seldom follows the screenplay. Whether it is the scripts of prisons and mental hospitals or political organizations and universities, he insists on improvising his lines and actions. This does not mean he does not run amok; he does so routinely, sometimes paying a god-awful price. Occasionally he even tilts at windmills. Nevertheless, he remains resolutely resilient and as stubbornly swashbuckling as a naive Don Quixote, ever looking for the next adventure.

I approach death and dying just like all other movies I’ve been in—ignore the script and improvise like hell! If there is any such a thing, I will be eternally grateful to family, friends, students, and colleagues for having shared the stage. Your nurturing presence during the past four years has empowered me to play my most challenging and fulfilling role. We are nearing the end of this film, but I am sure I’ll fashion a denouement that will surprise even Monte . . .

 

“Professors, We Need You!” [ . . . To Come Out Of Your Cloistered Monasteries]

In tomorrow’s New York Times, Nicholas Kristof’s column takes academics to the woodshed for failing to communicate with the general public. He refuses to accept the common ivory tower rationalization that the great unwashed masses are just too stupid to grasp our “arcane” and “turgid” prose in peer-reviewed publications. Kristof suggests an alternative explanation: Much of our writing is “gobbledygook.”

“SOME of the smartest thinkers on problems at home and around the world are university professors, but most of them just don’t matter in today’s great debates.

“The most stinging dismissal of a point is to say: ‘That’s academic.’ In other words, to be a scholar is, often, to be irrelevant.

“One reason is the anti-intellectualism in American life, the kind that led Rick Santorum to scold President Obama as “a snob” for wanting more kids to go to college, or that led congressional Republicans to denounce spending on social science research. Yet it’s not just that America has marginalized some of its sharpest minds. They have also marginalized themselves. . . .

I write this in sorrow, for I considered an academic career and deeply admire the wisdom found on university campuses. So, professors, don’t cloister yourselves like medieval monks — we need you!”

FB Personality Inventories: Frivolous, Unscientific, and Marketing Pitches—But Sometimes Spot On!

Facebook streams a variety of questionnaires that purport to pinpoint our personalities. They are goofy and fun, particularly when friends also take the test. Of course, the results should be taken with a healthy dose of skepticism.  However, occasionally we experience that old shock of recognition—perhaps only because the designation flatters us!

I took the iPersonic Personality Test and I am a Groundbreaking Thinker. What is your type?

The Groundbreaking Thinker

In their work, Groundbreaking Thinkers highly rate challenges and diversified tasks. They cannot stand routine and too detailed work. They love to astound others with bold ideas for an original, new project and  then leave it up to the others to implement them. Hierarchies, rules and regulations arouse their opposition and they love outsmarting the system. It is vital to them that they enjoy their work; if this is the case, they quickly become pure workaholics. Their creativity best takes effect when they work independently; but they are very good at motivating others and infecting them with their optimistic nature. Conceptual or advisory activities appeal especially to Groundbreaking Thinkers. It can happen that some people feel somewhat duped by their flexible, spontaneous nature.

Their sociability and enterprise ensure that Groundbreaking Thinkers always have a large circle of friends and acquaintances in which activity plays an important role. As they are mostly in a good mood, they are popular and very welcome guests. Grumbling and peevishness are unknown to them. However, they do tend to be a little erratic and unstable when it comes to obligations and this makes them appear to be unreliable to some.

Groundbreaking Thinkers are very critical and demanding when it comes to picking a partner because they look for the ideal relationship and have a very concrete picture of this ideal relationship. Mutual aims in life are very important to them. They do not like compromising and would rather remain alone. For the partner, it is often a challenge to have a long-term relationship with a Groundbreaking Thinker. Groundbreaking Thinkers need a lot of space and diversity or otherwise they become bored and feel cramped.

Types who are rather more traditionalistic often have problems with the willingness of Groundbreaking Thinkers to take risks and their often crazy, spontaneous actions. However, if one can summon up sufficient flexibility and tolerance for them, one will never be bored in their presence and will always have a loyal and faithful partner.

As a Groundbreaking Thinker, you are one of the extroverted personality types. Dealing with others, communication, discussions, and a little action are your life’s blood – and some of your strengths. You are very articulate and love variety personally as well professionally. New tasks, new projects, new people, fascinate you because you are always interested to increase your wealth of experience.

Consequently, you have no problem run with the hare and hunt with the hounds; juggling parallel tasks to be accomplished electrifies you, and you are an accomplished improviser. Your enthusiasm carries others along and enables you to create positive impulses in your team. Mountains of paperwork, endless e-mail correspondences, and solitary work tire you quickly, and bore and frustrate you. The appreciation of your work by others is more important for you than for the introverted Thinker types. You measure your own professional value by the admiring glances of your colleagues and superiors.

The psychologist Keirsey once described the Groundbreaking Thinker as the “soul of the company,” and that can be just as easily applied to an employee position, as to an independent chief of a company. Since risk represents less of a threat than excitement, freelance or self-employment are well suited to you.

However, you must take care to have collaborating staff around you, or that you are able to work closely with other teams in order to satisfy your contact and communication needs. You are naturally suited for leadership positions because there you have the ultimate freedom making your decisions and choosing your tasks.As a Groundbreaking Thinker, you are one of the extroverted personality types. Dealing with others, communication, discussions, and a little action are your life’s blood – and some of your strengths. You are very articulate and love variety personally as well professionally. New tasks, new projects, new people, fascinate you because you are always interested to increase your wealth of experience.

My “Professor” Ponzi Scheme Remains Undetected . . .

Hello Monte,

The stairwell leading up to the Soc. Dept. at Augsburg is lined with posters from our annual Torstenson Lecture.  I have attached one such poster from a few years back.  We invite local soc-celebrities to give a talk and then have dinner with our Sr. soc. majors.

This year, we would be honored if you would give the 2014 Torstenson Lecture in Sociology.  If you are willing and able, we are hoping to schedule the talk for April 1st or 2nd, but we can discuss other dates.  The lecture is typically around 5:30 and we go to dinner somewhere in the neighborhood.  We will also provide you with a stipend for your time.
Please let me know if you would consider speaking at Augsburg.  We would love to have you!
Tim

 

Dear Tim,

When I read the first paragraph, I assumed you were inviting me to attend the “2014 Torstenson Lecture on Sociology.” I eagerly read on to see who you had selected as this year’s “soc-celebrity.” Honestly, I was somewhat stunned when I discovered that you were inviting me to give the lecture!

Rather than a soc-celebrity, I think of myself more as sociology’s most infamous “confidence man,” one-step away from being exposed for the “professor” Ponzi scheme that I’ve been running for the past 40 years.

As long as you, in good conscience, can ask your students and faculty to foolishly invest what Click and Clack called “a perfectly good hour” for dubious return, I am eager to bamboozle any “marks” you are able to gather for this investment seminar on sociology stocks and bonds.

Monte

P.S. April Fools’ Day seems a most appropriate date for my lecture.

Bute’s Big Ten: Old-School Sociological Classics

by Doug Hartmann3 days ago at 11:03 am

As a follow-up to my post about great books in sociology last week, I called for readers to send in their own Top 10 lists. It has been fun to see those starting to come in. Here’s one from TSP blogger, Monte Bute, the self-styled “backstage sociologist.” Replete with an introductory explanation and annotations for each proposed volume, Bute suggesetd the title “A Populist’s Top Ten Sociology Books.” I tend to think of it as a classic, old-school list. Take it away, Monte.

Wayne Booth once argued that every composition strikes a “rhetoric stance”—an author, a subject, and an audience. Usually these elements are implicit; in this essay, I give you the “Full Monte.”

What is my persona? I am a populist sociologist, an outsider with a hardscrabble perspective. Lacking what Tillie Olsen called “the soil of easy growth,” I acquired my taste for great books not in seminar rooms but on the streets. Never disciplined by a sociology graduate program, I forged my chops experientially—as a deviant, dissident, and organizer.

What is my subject? It is a case for the ten best sociology books. But what do I mean by “best”? I sought books that allow the reader to achieve, in the words of C. Wright Mills, “a quality of mind that will help them to use information and to develop reason in order to achieve lucid summations of what is going on in the world and of what may be happening within themselves.” (By the way, The Sociological Imagination came in 11th on my list.)

The list is chronological without ranking. Perhaps surprisingly, it includes only volumes published between 1840 and 1959. I leave publications from the past 55 years to the test of time: Are they sprinters or long-distance runners? Consequently, you will find no “flavors of the decade” like Habermas, Foucault, Smith, Bourdieu, Chodorow, Wallerstein, Skocpol, Giddens, Hochschild, Bellah, Tilly, or Bauman.

Who is my audience? It is not the crème de la crème professional sociologists. I developed the list for undergraduate and graduate students and well-informed citizens (Who Virginia Woolf called the “common reader,” as opposed to the scholar). As an essayist, I stand with George Orwell: “Good prose is like a window pane.” While not all of my authors fully achieve this high standard, it helps explain why other candidates, like Parsons and most recent academic celebrities, are not on the list.

• Democracy in America Vol. 2 (Alex de Tocqueville)

If you are an aficionado of cultural or historical sociology, here is the man who wrote the book on both. Ironically, it took Habits of Heart to acquaint most American sociologists with Tocqueville’s masterpiece. He remains underappreciated as both a thinker and writer. As an aside, his Recollections is a first-person account of the French revolution of 1848, a compelling contrast with Marx’s interpretation.

• The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (Karl Marx)

This is Marx’s finest sociological work. When events confounded his polemics in The Communist Manifesto, he followed the evidence and revised his theory. In explaining the failure of the Revolution of 1848, Marx employs his most sophisticated use of class analysis. Written in white heat as a series of magazine articles, this is what public sociology is all about.

• Suicide (Emile Durkheim)

One could not leave out the foundational text of what Sorokin called “Quanophrenia.” Cliché or not, familiarity does breed contempt. It’s easy to forget how confounding in 1897 it was to argue that suicide was not just an individual act, but also a social fact su generis. The recent translation by Robin Buss better captures Durkheim’s lucid prose style than the earlier Spaulding and Simpson text.

• The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (Max Weber)

Was he right? Was he wrong? Who cares! The way he constructs his argument is sociology’s finest example of the rhetoric of inquiry. How he begins by teasing out his research question, his subtle probing of Franklin and Baxter for “spirit” and “ethic,” his historical narrative of symbolic motivations without events or empirical data, his poetic and prophetic conclusion—this is a work of art, bringing to mind Huizinga’s masterful The Autumn of the Middle Ages.

• Soziologie (Georg Simmel)

Conventional wisdom dismisses Simmel as an “impressionistic” thinker. Because translation of this thousand-page tome took place in piecemeal fashion, readers of individual chapters saw only episodic brilliance. While the entire work is not conventionally “systemic,” it does possess a conceptual coherence—sociation as the guiding principle of his sociology. On Individuality and Social Forms best introduces this masterpiece.

• Twenty Years at Hull-House (Jane Addams)

This choice will bewilder only those who have not thoroughly examined her life and times. This volume is an example of genre bending, the autobiography as social theory (as is Du Bois’ Darkwater). She exemplifies feminist sociology, creative nonfiction, action research, as well as the activism of American sociology’s founding generation from 1900-1930.

• The Polish Peasant in Europe and America (W.I. Thomas and Florian Znaniecki)

Nearly inaccessible (a few used copies starting at $100) and forbidding (2,250 pages), it is a sacrilege that the ASA or the University of Chicago Press has not commissioned a 400-500 page abridged edition. It’s time to get beyond Blumer’s savaging of this work. The authors demonstrated that emigration and immigration are a seamless social process. To get a flavor of this tour de force, you need two volumes: under the same name, Eli Zaretsky has edited 127 pages of the personal documents; On Social Organization and Social Personality provides 157 pages of history, analysis, theory, and methodology.

• Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880 (W.E.B. Du Bois)

Sociologists belatedly canonized Du Bois, but in the process neglected this magnum opus of historical sociology. I am baffled that during the heyday of this subfield, Black Reconstruction garnered nary a mention. Working as a “plain Marxist” (Mills) rather than a dogmatic one, Du Bois refused to reduce race to class. He is the first to tease out the contradictions between race and class in American history.

• Social Theory and Social Structure (Robert K. Merton)

Only Weber and Goffman rival him as the 20th century’s most prolific entrepreneur of enduring sociological concepts. He is a far more eclectic and creative thinker than the caricature of him as a mere handmaiden of Parsons’ functionalism. Merton is perhaps American sociology’s finest prose stylist.

• The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (Erving Goffman)

He turned the study of face-to-face interaction into a personal cottage industry. While he is perhaps the most important American sociologist of the 20th century, he, like Simmel, left no heirs. Ironically, sociological mandarins only begrudgingly tolerate his rule breaking because he was a genius. Au Contraire, he was a genius because he broke the rules. Like many of these authors, he writes craftily and, consequently, is a delightful read.

As the poet and linguist John Ciardi put it, “Good words to you.”

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