Thursday, March 3, 2011

Why easy is not always good

My mother-in-law is a typesetter. She will not read a book unless it is not only appealing in its content, but also pleasing to the eye. When I was in medical school, she did quite a bit of work for medical textbook publishers. Comparing books typeset by her to what I was grinding through on a daily (and nightly basis) incensed her: unwieldy tables appearing three pages away from the corresponding text, small letters crammed to capacity onto oversized pages, few illustrations -- all baffling, annoying (and easily fixable) transgressions against readability. Yet, like all budding docs of all generations, I plowed through these morasses of knowledge without giving its readability much thought -- this was just what you did to get to your goal.

Yesterday I was listening to a program where the author Amy Chua was interviewed about her (ahem) embattled autobiography Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Ms. Chua, though evenly humored throughout the interview, was on the defensive nearly the entire time, explaining how the intent of her opus has been grossly misunderstood by the public, thanks to attacks by critics on her parenting style. And granted, looking at the book as a parenting manual through the prism of our Western parenting norms is a bit disturbing. Yet putting its events in a culturally appropriate context, as well as looking at the content as a narrative rather than a guide, leads to completely different conclusions.

Why am I bringing up Amy Chua's interview after talking about my conquest of the unreadable? Well, it seems that ease is what we have come to expect from everything. What I mean by this is that not only do we expect easily readable texts, but we also expect people to present themselves in such a way as to make it easy for us to like them. Why else change your appearance through life-threatening eating disorders and grueling surgeries, get coached on how to make friends and influence people, and comment on how unlikable some of our female politicians are? Is this not a triumph of form over substance?

Amy Chua clearly bucks this trend in her book and is paying the price. But what worries me is that we are all paying a price. By creating another false dichotomy of "she is nice" or "he is nasty", we have eschewed a more realistic view of our human foibles. We are all nice sometimes and nasty at others. Yet this dichotomy has proven supremely fruitful to our political discourse, where for 30 years this new reality has been taking root. And it has born fruit, so that now people who do not hold similar opinions to ours are summarily dismissed as "nasty" or idiotic, and we are satisfied to surround ourselves with "nice" like-minded sycophants. How primitive it renders our political and social interactions!

Ms. Chua's immigrant parents' philosophy resonated with my upbringing. Coming from lands of uncertainty and deprivation, as immigrants, our parents subscribed to Maslow's pyramid and taught us that economic security trumped everything else. This is why only certain career choices were acceptable, while others were relegated to the back burner of a hobby. These choices were not about ease, but about doing what we were taught was the right thing. As John Adams said:
I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce, and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry, and Porcelaine.
We all set priorities, and some of them may not be easy. I myself still read books even if they are not all that well presented; my priorities are content and writing style, though, to be sure, I do not frown upon the beauty of the visual form. I even enjoy characters who in, their multidimensionality, are a challenge to like. And I have learned in the rest of my life to enjoy people who do not necessarily hold easy or quick appeal for me, yet in the long run prove to add unimaginable richness to my life. Nietzsche coined the famous quote "What does not break you will make you stronger." In all aspects of our lives, while, based on Nietzsche's statement, adversity is a sufficient but not necessary road to strength, pushing ourselves a little bit out of our stuporous ease may prove to be one timely remedy.


  1. What you are describing is the human tendency to use labels and judgments instead of descriptions. This arises out of the fact that any verbal description is some form of label. But the descriptions are more precise and less emotionally charged than judgments. So they are more useful, but take more mental effort to form. Unfortunately, the emotional hit from using judgmental words with others makes them popular.

  2. it's somewhat ironic that you deride society for having a simplistic viewpoint that dissolves into dichotomy. Chua's book does the exact same thing by creating a false dichotomy between "eastern" and "western" styles of raising children (do those even exist?).

    This false dichotomy is only tolerated because it is the reverse of Said's "orientalism"; that is, the discursive "other" is the putative protagonist.

  3. Amy Chua wants it both ways. Her book became a sensation and a best-seller because of its provocative content. But faced with the backlash from readers, she claims she is misunderstood.