Crying and Doing Nothing
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Crying and doing nothing are activities that all of us partake in, and that most of us are not particularly proud of. If we are seen doing either, our first reaction is to hide -- if crying, wipe the tears away, fix the make-up, put on a smile; if loafing, pretend to be working, or at least reading, do anything to make ourselves look busy or useful.
Ad Vingerhoets has been one of the most important researchers on the human propensity to cry for several decades now. Why Only Humans Weep: Unraveling the Mysteries of Tears (as opposed to his earlier Adult Crying: A Biopsychosocial Account), is directed at a general audience, and is replete with fascinating facts, anecdotes, and theories. One of my favorites is about a new phenomenon in Japan, the growth of 'crying bars,' places people go to weep and drink together, with tearjerkers on the screen and sound system. There is a theory here about loss and community, which is fine, but the real pleasure of the book is in its details.
Why Humans Like to Cry: The Evolutionary Origins of Tragedy, by Michael Trimble, a neuroscientist, is one of those books, which have become legion, in which a neuroscientist re-examines a basic human trait through the lens of current neurological thinking. When it is done well, as when Antonio Damasio works through the arguments of the great philosophers, the results can be revelatory. In this case, the arguments about crying are rehashed, the argument about tragedy is Nietzsche's, the neurology is thin, and the result is fancier than it is nutritious.
Sam Lipsyte was heralded as one of our great new novelists with Home Land, a deeply funny novel about a slacker-loser as his high school reunion approaches. A couple years ago, The Ask follows a slacker who manages to get a college degree, but not with enough momentum to get him out of college altogether -- he stays on in a lowly position in the school's development department, basically doing nothing. It also was well executed and well received. Those are the books people should read to appreciate Lipsyte's talent. The stories in The Fun Parts, although many were published in elite journals first, are not strong, and give the impression that Lipsyte is himself coasting a bit.