Mummies, Dutchmen, and Death, oh my! Leopardi on dying

One of the displays of the Dutch anatomist Frederik Ruysch (1638-1731), U.S. National Library of Medicine

[“Verily I am in a cold sweat!” …or in modern English, aghhh, sick again! And for what? The fourth time this year already? I’d grumble if it didn’t make my throat vibrate… a hazard of working with children, I suppose. So I’ll try something low effort this week: an annotated chapter summary. I feel like death, so let’s write about it.]

So, I finally sat down to read the 19th century Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi after spending too long picking out translations. For now, I’ve settled on the 1882 Edwardes English edition of the Operette Morali (Moral Essays) from Project Gutenberg because it’s free and online and I’m cheap and I’m lazy. They’re excellent! Despite the heavy subject matter in Leopardi’s pessimistic philosophy, the short dialogues in the Operette Morali make for some great light office reading since none of them go much beyond a couple thousand words each. But beyond the philosophy, they have some great gallows humor too, none more so than the dialogue between the Dutch anatomist Frederik Ruysch and his “mummies” on the nature of death (of course, not like… literal mummies from Egypt or wherever, but preserved cadavers used in Ruysch’s anatomical investigations!).

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How to read Leopardi? No, seriously, I’m asking! The paradox of choice in translation

Who’s that clever boy?
Image source: Wikipedia

[I am not a scholar or anything close… instead just a confused consumer trying to read the 19th century Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi in English and finding that it is much harder to choose a translation than I ever expected. But, I hope this post can maybe function as an un-academic bibliography of Leopardi translations, and for my own purposes, a purchase guide for leisure reading.]

Have you heard of the paradox of choice? The concept comes from the 2004 book The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less by psychologist Barry Schwartz, who popularized the idea among casual audiences with this 2005 TED Talk. It proposes the counter-intuitive behavioral economics hypothesis that consumer welfare might decrease when the market presents them with too many similar products because the costs of choosing the utility-maximizing option between those products will increase.

…or to eliminate the economics jargon and talk like a normal person, trying to pick the perfect product out of dozens can become stressful, especially for anxious people with what Schwartz calls “maximizer” personalities who fixate on ideals and feel prone to regretting their choices.

Of course, the concept has faced some substantial criticism by economists and the early experimental results have failed to replicate like so many other psychological studies popularized by TED (and then even if it did replicate, I’m not sure how much choosing between 6 jams or 24 can tell us about more serious decisions like purchasing a car or health insurance plan).

However, despite the weakness of the empirical results, I think Schwartz does propose a subtle insight that can apply to our most complex, difficult choices: in economics jargon, taking the time to consider the opportunity costs of a complex decision itself carries an opportunity cost. And in ordinary language again… instead of agonizing over a tough choice by trying to find the best one, you could just make a quick pick and go on to enjoy your day (the easy-going “satisfier” personality type identified by Schwartz).

Simple everyday experience can probably provide better examples of the idea than any experiment every could. Most grocery shoppers won’t worry much about grabbing one of the 175 varieties of salad dressing mentioned in Schwartz’s TED Talk, but they might have trouble choosing which of the 80 Vanguard ETFs they should invest in when planning for their retirement (if they’ve even settled on Vanguard out of dozens of investment companies!). Or to use an example from my own life abroad in Japan, I spent hours researching different remittance options to send money back home to America. But when I finally committed to one, I regretted my choice within a few weeks after I discovered that I could have saved money with a different company. It was the paradox of choice in action: the large number of complex options confused me, and when that confusion produced a suboptimal decision, my nagging “maximizer” personality dragged on my guilty conscience.

For the purposes of this post though, I have a much more trivial example of the paradox: which of the 40-some editions of Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi’s translated works should I read in the office between class periods? The question sounds simple, but then my “maximizer” personality strikes again; I’ve spent the last week reading about how to read Leopardi …instead of, you know, actually reading him. And then as I re-read this post before I hit “publish,” I can’t help but wonder if all of that choice hasn’t driven me insane…

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Ready Player One, isekai anime, and the value of cross-cultural criticism

[By now, I think I am beating this dead horse mostly to annoy my friends, but hey, I need something to do in the office between class periods!]

As a capstone on my mad hate-bender over Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel Ready Player One, I figured that I ought to watch the movie adaptation directed by Steven Spielberg. It was… fine. I can’t say that I enjoyed it, but I didn’t hate it in the same way that I did the novel. Maybe that means Spielberg et al. deserve praise for achieving a rare “the movie was better than the book” moment. At the same time though, thrice 1/10 is only 3/10, so be damned with praise, I suppose (sorry, statistics pedants of the world, for using multiplication on an interval scale!)

The film corrected many of my biggest problems with the book especially because as a movie, it literally had no choice but to “show, not tell.” Instead of using Cline’s uselessly vague descriptors like “80s dance moves” the movie had to actually put the stupid dance on the screen for the audience to see. Even the awful pop-culture references, which were so annoying and lazy and unavoidable in the novel, mostly drifted away into the ignorable background because the animators crammed so many icons into the OASIS that focusing on any one of them became impossible (an upgrade from unavoidable to ignorable? damned with praise again!).

However, at 2 hours and 19 minutes, the movie dragged on for far too long through CGI cutscene after CGI cutscene. That excessive length might explain my lack of substantive commentary because after about 90 minutes, I started to zone out while twiddling on my phone and counting down every 10 minutes for the movie to end. Whatever. I am finally feeling a little fatigue discussing the franchise and don’t have anything special to say that professional critics haven’t so I’ll stop there with the movie.

I am more interested in seeing if I can make any meaningful comparison between Ready Player One and video-game setting anime. Initially, that was maybe my implicit goal. I grabbed the book as a self-conscious break from a month-long isekai binge thinking I could write about it. But, as much as I tried, I couldn’t force a comparison. This is not for lack of similarities. If Ready Player One’s virtual-world self-insert power fantasy had been published as a light novel, it would have cleanly landed in the isekai genre. Plenty of cynical forum posts have already noted how Ready Player One resembles a Western version of Sword Art Online. They fit together almost perfectly.

Instead though, I gave up on making a direct comparison because I stumbled across a much more interesting one. The works themselves did not differ much, but my cross-cultural styles of consumption did. As an insider in Cline’s nerd culture, I found myself far more critical of every little fault in the book: some lazy minority tokenizing here, a transphobic line there, and bad prose everywhere. Criticizing Ready Player One was easy like… uh… bullseyeing womp rats with my T-16 (what useless pop-culture reference would Cline use here?). By contrast, I lack that same cultural and critical context with foreign media. Despite the great similarities between Ready Player One and the isekai genre, the Japanese works genuinely challenged my analytical skills and resulted in far greater self-reflection.

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The death of culture in Ready Player One’s unintended dystopia

[Forgive the self-indulgent rant… I didn’t expect to write more about Ready Player One but I disliked the book so much that I couldn’t help myself. I could even keep going!]

One of my persistent (and probably irrational) anxieties is that I will present my personality like a bad dating profile: a laundry list of likes and dislikes. I like anime. I like video games. I don’t like sports. Though mostly true, those statements feel facile. They beg for just a little extra effort and nuance. I don’t want other people to think of me only in terms of the media I consume or the hobbies I enjoy.

I don’t have a coherent response to this “dating profile problem,” for lack of a better term. Worse, I’m not sure that it really even is problematic, other than being a bit boring (boredom! the horror!). The closest I can get to a solution is something like this blog’s modest attempt to produce reviews with a little rigor. If it is insufficient to state that “I like this,” maybe answering the question “Why?” will come closer to whatever undefined ideal I fear violating.

That all is a roundabout way to say that I hate, hate, hate, hated Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel Ready Player One. Why? Because it does exactly what I try so hard to avoid: the book defines itself solely by the 1980s-ish pop-culture icons that Cline clearly adores. Ready Player One fails because it barely even tries to answer the question “Why” from my “dating profile problem.” Throughout the book’s 250-some pages, Cline continues to chant “I like this. I like this. I like this” until his virtual reality world begins to seem unintentionally dystopic. Cultural creativity itself seems to die in the ironically named OASIS, replaced only by lazy references to the pop-culture properties that form Cline’s canon of “things I like.”

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A comprehensive criticism of the depiction of Japan in Ready Player One

[I suppose this post will spoil the plots related to the Japanese characters. But then again… Ready Player One has so few surprises that I doubt it matters…]

As a break from my MMO isekai anime binge, I thought I would jump back to my own culture to observe the state of American virtual reality fiction. However, I had one requirement: it had to be a book so that I could read it during summer break downtime in the teacher room. The obvious choice seemed to be Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel Ready Player One, which had been riding high on media hype early this year following the release of a film adaptation directed by none other than Steven Spielberg. Two friends were already reading it, so I decided to pick it up and make a book club of it.

And o-ho boy, did I make a mistake. Ready Player One might be the worst book-for-pleasure I have ever read. I should have stuck to anime for my VR fix…

Since this site has become a de facto anime blog, I’ll skip a more general review and focus on Ready Player One’s shocking ignorance of Japanese culture and language. Plenty of other people have criticized the book but I have yet to come across a comprehensive breakdown of its awful depiction of Japan. So, while trying to stave off heat exhaustion in an unairconditioned Japanese middle school, I thought I would give it a shot.

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