A New York Times review of Would It Kill You To Stop Doing That?, a new book on manners by Henry Alford, got me thinking about how much of my social grace I’ve gleaned from works of fiction. Beyond the more obvious social dramas of Austen or Fitzgerald, books can provide useful advice on how to act in certain situations—and warn of the consequences when certain behaviors are found undesirable.
I figured, if James could look to literature to gain a little perspective on zoophiles, I could consult the bookshelf to learn how to behave. What follows is a brief guide to help you get started.
- All little children should be given Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Sure, it’s a little violent, but unimaginable horror never killed an eight year-old. The lesson here is embodied in the boy: at the end of days, walking around starving, the little guy hardly ever complains (or talks, for that matter), and he's spectacularly polite and loving towards his father. Does your kid whine about not getting the candy cereal at the grocery store? Hand him or her a copy. Maybe read it at night before they go to bed. See what happens.
- Do you know any sexual deviants who just need to shut up about it already? Give them a copy of Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behavior. One of the beauties of Gaitskill’s short stories is how remarkably calm everybody is about how messed up their sex is. As uncomfortable and sometimes harmful as her characters can be, Gaitskill narrates in a way that shuts down all the annoying, gossipy shock value and allows the perverts to be precisely what they are: just humans.
- Even though it was published way back in 1962, I think Another Country by James Baldwin should be handed out to every white, liberal-leaning heterosexual along with their organic oats and fair trade coffee. Have you ever referred to someone else’s partner as their "roommate"? Do you decorate with the aim of exhibiting your knowledge of cultural difference? Maybe you’re super well-intentioned but don’t understand what all the fuss is about. Mr. Baldwin can tell you.
- Is there anything worse than the plethora of man-children running around today? Guys in their twenties and thirties shirking the responsibilities of career, family, haircuts, bathing. Maybe it’s time for a good look at one of the prototypes of the modern man-child: Rabbit, Run by John Updike. The book should be read not to shore up men's juvenile mindsets, but to show them that their very special feelings of entrapment and angst are anything but new. Besides, until you can narrate your life at the level of Updike’s prose, your angst won’t even get you any attention.
But the best reason to pick up a book of fiction? It might not even be the wisdom between the covers, but that your chances of fucking up decrease if your nose is stuck in one.