#189 Skimming is for milk, not reading
Garage Criticism: Cultural Missives in an Age of Distraction
by Peter Babiak
Vancouver: Anvil Press, 2016
$20.00 / 9781772140507
Reviewed by Ginny Ratsoy
First published October 24, 2017
Fortunate is the reviewer who, confronting the blank page after finishing reading, finds her most pressing concern is how to do such a fine book justice. She is even more fortunate if the reading stimulated a detour to some non-reviewing, non-academic writing of her own.
Garage Criticism, a finalist for the Montaigne Medal, an Eric Hoffer award, is a cohesive collection of essays rich in literary references and redolent of the classics of the form; it is equally – and profoundly – relevant to the twenty-first century. Incisive, fresh, witty, wry, philosophical, and dramatic, Babiak’s essays demand — and reward — deep reading.
The subject matter is a diverse and wonderful melding of the public and private worlds. Topics range from the popularity of zombies, Fifty Shades of Grey, Facebook, and the Ashley Madison extra-marital affairs website, through to the history of pulp fiction, the relative merits of similes and metaphors, sex in early novels, and the ongoing American response to the terrorist attacks of September 2001.
Babiak’s own life is intimately woven into the material – from a lengthy coma and the loss and recuperation of his sense of smell through to his relationship with his students and his daughter, an extra-marital affair, and the demise of his marriage. He is a master of fruitful digressions.
An adherent of Marshall McLuhan’s conviction that the medium is the message, Babiak pulls no punches in his scrutiny of electronic technology with a clarity and vitality many might find lacking in McLuhan. In the context of avatars and gaming, he writes, “All we’re talking about is the conflation of the two old enemies – culture and economics – and about the fetishization of absolutist consumerism, the linchpins of the entire system” (p.24).
Several essays elaborate on this theme. Babiak apparently remembers well what Douglas Coupland called (in the Telegraph, September 14, 2014) the “Pre-Internet Brain,” and he is not amused (although amusing) about its alteration: “Our brains are evolving new circuits to skim through the mass of words and images they see online, and though that can be fun as hell, it is not always good, because reading is one activity and skimming is what you do to get the scum off the top of milk” (p. 72).
His reverence for words is palpable in his comments on society’s image fixation: “It’s words – always harder to understand and much less fun to look at – that can deliver us from evil and make us more complete thinkers, not images…” (p. 72). There’s no ambiguity in Babiak’s wry take on the aggregate influence of the electronic sphere.
Garage Criticism embraces the local as it deconstructs the homogenized, dumbed-down global picture the digital world promulgates. Babiak’s love of the larger literary world is patent in each of these twenty-one essays, but his belief in the importance of place and in the literary history of Vancouver shines through.
“My Agreeable Illusion” focuses on the description of a specific Vancouver view in the opening words of Ethel Wilson’s novel Swamp Angel (most of which, incidentally, is set in the B.C. Interior) that so profoundly impressed him that a top criteria in his house hunting was finding that view.
Babiak’s essay “Poetry Isn’t Elsewhere: Vancouver Poetry” examines works by Earle Birney, George Bowering, and others about various physical spots in Vancouver to illustrate his contention that poetry is “the only kind of writing … that can drill its way into the thought control centre of [our] minds and deposit a load of knowledge there” (p. 141).
Zsuzsi Gartner, Douglas Coupland, and various Vancouver visual artists are brought into service in these and other essays as Babiak examines the role of art in cementing the city’s sense of itself.
When I first opened Garage Criticism, I wondered if this wide-ranging critique of twenty-first century popular culture might be vulnerable to the three frequent pitfalls of non-fiction. The most common is overkill. Typically, the first several chapters will be fresh and cogent, but the remainder will only hammer home the points of those initial chapters — rather than extend them — by piling on more case studies and rhetoric.
The second flaw is an absence of rich connection. Essays can be isolated from each other — fine on their own, but with no “the- whole- is- greater-than- the-sum-of- its-parts” effect.
A third, albeit rarer, hazard is that every chapter will hang together until the final one, which might not fit with, and might even be contradictory to, the rest of the work.
Garage Criticism deftly sidesteps these pitfalls. Far from stumbling into them, Babiak ambles through the bewildering territory of the new millennium as a storyteller confident in the power of language – the collection’s unifying force.
As a student and teacher of fiction, he also grasps the importance of structure. Beyond being (roughly) chronologically ordered, these essays connect, overlap, and form an appealing narrative arc. Each one is also about both reading and writing. As they explore the finer details of writing — down to the exact word, and, especially, the construction of compelling sentences — they remind us of why we read.
Babiak sometimes gives short shrift to the role his day job plays in his successful writing, likening teacher of literature at Vancouver’s Langara College to a museum night watchman or a library book shelver: “it’s rewarding in an intangible way and it’s always more pedestrian than provocative.” (p. 175).
As my longtime job has been teaching literature (mostly Canadian) at a university and, as I have held positions that are slight variants on the two to which he compares teaching, I feel compelled to respond. Yes, all three are in service of a greater public good and do not result in an immediate, tangible product — in the way that my father’s hobby of woodworking, for example, did.
However, the museum and library positions are limited in scope and performed at the behest of those of higher rank, which might account for them being more prosaic than electrifying. The post-secondary educator, despite working in an increasingly bureaucratized environment, still has considerable freedom and influence.
Furthermore, engaging with other human beings (even considering the deleterious effects of their online lives) about powerful words and narratives has considerable potential for invigoration, as well as being a handy connecting device for writing about writing in the twenty-first century — as Babiak’s own essays corroborate.
Garage Criticism: Cultural Missives in an Age of Distraction should be a welcome addition to the libraries of those educators, parents, students, or just plain engaged citizens interested in our complex and enigmatic relationship with popular culture.
It will also appeal to readers drawn to the memoir form. I found some of what the jacket blurb calls “memoir-based essays” jaw-dropping in their candour.
And to those interested in the history of writing and in learning how to write, Babiak’s collection will be both an exemplar and an unorthodox instruction manual.
Ginny Ratsoy is an Associate Professor of English at Thompson Rivers University specializing in Canadian literature. Recent courses have included British Columbian Literature and The Environment in Canadian Literature. Among her publications are Playing the Pacific Province (Playwrights Canada Press, 2001, co-edited with James Hoffman) and Theatre in British Columbia (Playwrights Canada Press, 2006). She has also co-edited (with W.F. Garrett-Petts and James Hoffman) Whose Culture Is It, Anyway? Community Engagement in Small Cities (New Star Books, Limited, 2014), and published articles on theatre, playwrights, and small cities in British Columbia.
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