In a world where politics has now fully dominated the social discourse, and in which so many celebrities have been consistently and personally disappointing, Sedaris’s work offers a surrealist reprieve from all things “topical” and plunges the viewer into a world where, delightfully and briefly, nothing really matters. It’s the kind of comedy that isn’t guided by pop culture or current events. Instead, she creates a space that’s highly detailed and specific, where everything is about organized chaos. If you want to disengage from the world right now, a visit to her universe might be just what you need.
“I saw two wonderful and weird creatures / out in the open unashamedly / fall a-coupling,” wrote a monk in Old English a thousand years ago, either composing or transcribing a riddle about a rooster and a hen. This riddle and a hundred others—as well as elegies, proverbs, and dreams—were written into one big book, which was bequeathed to Exeter Cathedral by its bishop and subsequently used by the monks as a cutting board and a beer coaster and left vulnerable to bats and bookworms. Still, ninety-four riddles survived.
A thousand years later, I found two dozen of these riddles, translated into modern English and collected in a slim volume called The Earliest English Poems, and a few years after that—now, to be precise—I have published a book of my own riddles and elegies and proverbs.
Yet whatever name he went by, the good reader’s cultural elevation always relied on his oppositional relationship to the curiously undifferentiated mass of bad readers, who struck Nabokov—and have struck many teachers and literary scholars since—as a kind of irritating background noise; always already present and unworthy of any serious or systematic consideration. Indeed, Nabokov’s lecture seemed custom designed to bolster a general disdain for bad readers in U.S. academia. Poet Edouard Roditi noted in 1947 that “curious high-brow prejudices make many of us neglect our good writers who have gained popularity with bad readers.” Columbia professor William York Tindall, in his 1959 guide to reading modernist literature, argued that a “great artist” was one who “found the exact way to say what he saw. If the way he found shuts bad readers out, they must try to become better.” For Kenneth Burke an “overwhelming array of bad readers” was responsible for perpetuating the “practicality shibboleth” of reading: a widespread belief in the “kinds of action” that literature could “stimulate” in “political and economic situations.” Such pragmatism all but ensured that the artistic merits of “good books” would “pale into insigniﬁcance.” Walter Kaufmann bemoaned “the future of the humanities” when, in 1977, it appeared that this future had been bequeathed to “bad readers,” while the monthly magazine College Teacher instructed “bad readers” to steer clear of serious literature and limit their efforts to “menu reading, cookbooks, ‘how to’ manuals, comic books, advertisements, magazines, newspapers, and simple novels.” Of course, such sweeping indictments raise more questions than they answer. Who were these bad readers? Where had they come from? What did they want out of reading? And what, exactly, made them so bad in the ﬁrst place?
“Basically anyone can be an ex,” says Corey, 26. “If we dated, you’re my ex. If you used to retweet me a lot but stopped, you’re also my ex.” Caroline, 30, uses a similarly broad definition of the term for the sake of expediency. “I just call everyone my ex until it’s time to elaborate because, yeah, there isn’t a word for this. ‘Ex’ rolls off the tongue easier than ‘someone I dated for three months, but we were never official.’”
If you find this confusing, you’re not alone.
Language only works if all parties involved in a conversation agree in at least a general way on what words mean, which is why the persistence of “ex” as a catch-all for everything from “that one-night stand” to “my former wife” seems due for a shakeup. Everyone has their own definition of who rises to the level of an ex, and those ideas vary so widely that the word circles back around to mean absolutely nothing in casual conversation.