Sunday, December 9, 2012

Sunday Reading

Maybe Baby — Lauren Collins comments on where babies come from.

Ross Douthat’s column lamenting the declining American birthrate struck me as creepy when I read it, but I wasn’t sure why. Perhaps as a childless thirty-two-year-old woman—not only an evolutionary dead end, but also a moral zero, in Douthat’s eyes—I failed to produce a response, as I have failed to produce a baby, as result of “late-modern exhaustion—a decadence that first arose in the West but now haunts rich societies across the globe.” I wanted to tell Ross Douthat that there are many reasons that American women of my generation lag in both time and space, giving birth to fewer children than both our foremothers and our peers in countries such as France and the United Kingdom. Douthat is right that our government’s lack of interest in developing an infrastructure to help working mothers is a large part of the problem, if it is a problem. But so is the moralization of motherhood, which, as writers from Élisabeth Badinter to Pamela Druckerman and Katie Roiphe have recently pointed out, is rife in American society. As Badinter explains in “The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines Women,” people have more babies in France, where breast-feeding is a fifty-fifty proposition and ninety-nine per cent of young children are enrolled in free, state-run daycare, precisely because having a baby in France is not such a freighted ordeal. (By the way, Douthat’s notion that the declining birthrate is linked to “a broader cultural shift away from a child-centric understanding of romance and marriage” is undermined by the fertile, cohabiting French.)

That’s what I wanted to tell Ross Douthat, but I had just gone for a walk, sapping myself of energy that probably would have been better used in childbearing.

The next day, I read that the Duchess of Cambridge was expecting a child, and that she had been admitted to the hospital with hyperemesis gravidarum. She was very early in her pregnancy, and it felt invasive, hearing such intimate news. The way that commentators felt entitled to have an opinion about her womb, and the way they were rooting for her to reproduce, in the name of God and country, gave me a queasy feeling. Douthat wrote that a sagging population is the result of a society that “embraces the comforts and pleasures of modernity,” but might not women also be hesitating to have children, or struggling to find a way to do so, in a culture whose conception of family life is so primitive?

Carl Hiaasen has some advice for the GOP.

Based on the grim exit polls, you’d think Republican leaders would comprehend the futility of sucking up to the beet-faced Limbaugh fringe and pushing an agenda that most Americans viewed as extreme, exclusive and intrusive.

That tone had been set in the primaries by the lamest, flakiest set of candidates in modern memory. The only one who ever stood a chance was Romney, who veered so hard to the right that he couldn’t ever find his way back.

Want a sure-fire recipe for blowing another national election?

1. Keep badmouthing the poor, and bowing to the rich. This is an especially clever strategy while the country is clawing out of a recession.

2. To drive away as many women voters as possible, keep talking about banning abortions and cutting off funds for birth control.

3. Another brilliant campaign topic: Outlawing gay marriage. Keep that one on the front burner if you’re keen on alienating millions of highly motivated voters.

4. Don’t forget to bash big government every chance you get — just pray that a major hurricane doesn’t hit, and the whole country doesn’t get reminded of the importance of FEMA, the National Guard, the Army Corps of Engineers and other tax-gobbling slackers.

5. Finally, keeping pushing for laws that would allow anyone who looks vaguely Hispanic to be pulled over in their cars and frisked for citizenship documents. This is how you keep your “base electorate” fired up, your base being angry, white, old and dwindling by the day.

Marco Rubio can’t avoid Iowa with its freakishly homogenous demographics (91 percent white), but he can certainly avoid coming off like a jabbering loon. He’s already separated himself from the likes of Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann by stating that he actually believes in science.

Now we’ll see if the GOP can evolve enough to let him lead the party out of its cave.

An Unexpected Party — Jon Michaud on why he thinks The Hobbit is a better book than its sequel.

With the imminent release of the first of Peter Jackson’s three-part adaptation of “The Hobbit,” I revisited J. R. R. Tolkien’s 1937 novel, which I had not opened since I was a teen-ager. Re-reading “The Hobbit” turned out to be something of a revelation. Formerly, I’d seen it as nothing more than an appetizer for the big feast of “The Lord of the Rings.” Now, I realized, it was a perfecly balanced meal of its own—one that left you feeling sated rather than gorged. A good case can be made that “The Hobbit” is a better and more satisfying read than its gargantuan successor. Herewith, some arguments in the little book’s favor:

1. Only one hobbit.

There’s a reason Tolkien begins both novels by getting his hobbit protagonists out of the Shire. Hobbits, though possessed of many admirable traits, can be kind of a drag, especially in large numbers. One is plenty. Four is too many. After twelve hundred pages of “The Lord of the Rings,” I’d had just about enough of the hobbits’ endless pining for home and their tiresome whingeing about not having a second breakfast. Particularly grating is Sam Gamgee, the loyal, kind-hearted servant who accompanies Frodo all the way to Mt. Doom—and insists on calling him “Mr. Frodo” the entire time. Mindlessly devoted and masochistically self-denying, he is held up as the truest expression of hobbithood. No thanks. I find Bilbo, the hero of the earlier book, a far more engaging character. While he does yearn for the comforts of the Shire during his journey to the Lonely Mountain, he is no straight arrow. He’s an opportunist, willing to fudge the rules when it suits him. He outwits Gollum with a not-quite-kosher riddle. He steals the Arkenstone from Smaug’s hoard and uses it as a bargaining chip; and he hides the magic ring from his companions as long as he can. Next time I re-read “The Lord of the Rings,” I am sure to ask myself, What would Bilbo do?

2. Lots of dwarves.

I propose a rule: the ratio of dwarves to hobbits is directly proportional to the quality of the tale. Wagner and Walt Disney understood this. Pompous and irritable, industrious yet bumbling, dwarves are much more enjoyable to read about than hobbits. Though motivated always by gold, they are makers as well as takers. Skilled blacksmiths, miners, and engineers, they are responsible for many of the wonders of Middle Earth. Moria is to a hobbit hole as the Pyramids are to a thatched-roof cottage. There is just one dwarf in “The Lord of the Rings”: Gimli. He is the son of Gloin, one of Bilbo’s companions in “The Hobbit.” (Gloin does make a brief appearance at the Council of Elrond, but that hardly counts.) Having one dwarf in your epic fantasy novel is like having one acrobat in a circus. You need a troupe! Poor Gimli is charged not only with protecting the ringbearer, but also with providing much of the comic relief in the trilogy. By contrast, “The Hobbit” features a dozen dwarves and is the richer for it. Who can’t sympathize with a group of grumpy, bearded refugees who have been evicted from their homeland by a greedy despot? The fact that they squabble, refuse to listen to directions, and end up starting a war only makes them more fun to read about.

Doonesbury — Then what?

3 barks and woofs on “Sunday Reading

  1. Re: the baby-making. Guess my biological clock had a power failure from day one. I’ve never had any interest in reproducing.

    Re: hobbits. Prefer The Hobbit over TLOTR. Yeah, sacrilege.

  2. (Neither has one of my granddaughters, Julie. Sigh. I so long for a couple of greats – )

    Would someone please tell me how to pronounce Douthat? Doubt-that?)

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