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Commencing in fall 1996, a writer named Jonathan Lethem will take over the tenure-track faculty position in English at Evergreen State College. As a writer, he has received praise for both his fiction and his nonfiction, including a Whiting Writers Award nomination in 1993. But he is also now widely known for something else: a so-called conversation he held during a campus speech in October 2000, wherein he discussed at length his views of the races he grew up among and whose culture he rejects in part because of this experience. That speech, The Criminalization of the Stakes Are High, in which Lethem spoke about cultural assumptions held by whites, but which he also says are indeed true for whites and often assumed to be true for others, has become particularly famous as a significant moment in both the recent discussion of racial politics in the United States and the academic career of its author. Now, Lethem is holding another campus speech on the topic of education, at the request of a group of students who seek to engage him on an academic topic and at a time when he is free to choose the words with which to respond.
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The Mere Distraction: A Litany of Lies After Sex is a surprising and pleasurable book about the often awkwardand, honestly, sometimes downright painfulprocess of speaking about sex. It says just thatwords after sexbut from many different angles: how people talk about it with each other; how they talk about it when it goes wrong; and how they sometimes manage to talk about it when it goes right. The Mere Distraction is Gail Lees first book, but it is hardly her first book.The books true subject is neither sex nor marriage, but perception. Lee tells us, for example, that we often choose our matesbe they potential future spouses, boyfriends, girlfriends, or just the guy who first sat next to us on the busbased on their appearance, when what we should choose is their character. And what they mean by that character is that they can distract us. The magic of distraction, which Lee describes as whether or not it is felt to be a virtue, and even when it is not felt to be a virtue at all, it is still awfully useful, has to do with helping us move past our perceptions, our beliefs and memories. To do so is to do nothing so much as to put the past away, or at least out of conscious awareness. It is in this very elusive sense that we have illusions, because to confront the past is to be stuck. This we cannot allow. We need, therefore, to distract ourselves, to pour outward with a new sense of purpose to replace the old. This is the meaning of life. This is our truth. This is The Mere Distraction. I never, Lee explains, want to leave the house without it. After all, who would I be without my distractions?A compelling read. I give it five stars. Rather than The Ultimate Text, I would prefer to call it The Ultimate Self-Help Text.