4.30.2009

Put a Poem in Your Pocket

The poet wrote:

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

April also National Poetry Month, a celebration of poetry started in 1996 by the Academy of American Poets. As part of the celebration, today (April 30th) is the second national Poem in Your Pocket Day. Put a poem in your pocket today and read it to your friends, family, and co-workers and a few other times to yourself, as well.

I’ve been pondering the poem I will put in my pocket today. Since I usually have a couple of extra pockets, I am going to carry around the following three, leaving open for now the reasons for my selections:

Czeslaw Milosz An Honest Description of Myself with a Glass of Whiskey at an Airport, Let us say, in Minneapolis

My ears catch less and less of conversations, and my eyes have weakened, though they are still insatiable.

I see their legs in miniskirts, slacks, wavy fabrics.

Peep at each one separately, at their buttocks and thighs, lulled by the imaginings of porn.

Old lecher, it's time for you to the grave, not to the games and amusements of youth.

But I do what I have always done: compose scenes of this earth under orders from the erotic imagination.

It's not that I desire these creatures precisely; I desire everything, and they are like a sign of ecstatic union.

It's not my fault that we are made so, half from disinterested contemplation, half from appetite.

If I should accede one day to Heaven, it must be there as it is here, except that I will be rid of my dull senses and my heavy bones.

Changed into pure seeing, I will absorb, as before, the proportions of human bodies, the color of irises, a Paris street in June at dawn, all of it incomprehensible, incomprehensible the multitude of visible things.



Mary Oliver The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice--
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
"Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do--
determined to save
the only life you could save.


Harold Pinter A Poem (To A)

I shall miss you so much when I’m dead
The loveliest of smiles
The softness of your body in our bed

My everlasting bride
Remember that when I am dead
You are forever alive in my heart and my head


What poem(s) will you carry in your pocket today?

4.29.2009

A Skeptical Eye

The central concern that Grayling expresses in his essay, Pressing Questions for Our Century, (discussed yesterday) is the responsibility that each of us has to keep abreast of developments in science and technology. To me, this not only means being well informed about scientific research, but also knowing what is required to evaluate the findings reported in the press and in the books that we read. This isn’t easy for a layperson to do. It requires considerable education and careful research.

So for example when you read one of Malcolm Gladwell’s extraordinarily popular book about decision making (Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking) or his latest (Outliers: The Story of Success) on the sources of distinguished accomplishment, you know how to approach his claims critically, judge their accuracy, and, determine whether or not the evidence that he cites or that you find on your own, is adequate grounds for his assertions.

This means knowing something about the methodology of scientific research and the techniques one employs to identify alternative accounts of research findings. The first step in achieving this is in asking the “right” questions, in knowing what questions to ask and what not to ask. This is always the hardest part. It is like composing the first sentence in a book or story you wish to write. Often a writer will struggle with that first sentence for months but once it clear what it will be, the tale often takes off on its own.

In Blink for example, Gladwell claims the rapidly made decisions (“in the blink of an eye”) are every bit as reliable and sometimes more so than decisions made more deliberately. However, that is not exactly the finding reported in the experiment he discusses in support of this claim. What is reported are judgments of teaching effectiveness made by female subjects only, from repeated video clips that lasted as long as several seconds each, and that the female students never actually rated the teacher’s overall effectiveness but instead a set of verbal behaviors that, aggregated together, were presumed to measure it.

Nor does he fairly describe studies suggesting that predictions of marital happiness can be accurately made after observing an hour of a couples’ interaction or that a decision-making algorithm for predicting cardiac arrest can be made on “very thin slices of evidence.” In fact, research in both areas developed after long and complicated testing procedures that involved sifting through a good deal of data and many hours of personal experience. These were not snap judgments or carried out in the blink of an eye.

So it isn’t only the reader has the responsibility to approach science critically. It is also the science writer who has an obligation to report accurately and know how to carefully evaluate the generality of the reported primary studies. A science writer also doesn’t create a very deep understanding of a phenomenon on the basis of a series of (unrepresentative) anecdotes, as Gladwell often relates, no matter how colorful they are.

In the press we often read about a relationship between what we eat and behavior, or between some type of experience and a disease. But we rarely read about the strength of the relationship or whether it might be due to any number of other factors. Nor do we read for whom the findings hold and for whom they don’t. And most such press reports are framed in the language of causality when it fact one can never presume there is a causal relationship from correlational data

No doubt I can say all this because of my research background and training. Nevertheless, I believe any reader can approach press reports and books about science with a critical eye. It takes a certain style of thinking and of questioning to do this. But with practice it can become “second nature” to anyone. Just keeping asking questions, read with a skeptical eye, and be mindful of how the findings were derived and for whom they do and do not hold.

4.28.2009

What is the Question

As Gertrude Stein was on her deathbed, Alice B. Toklas asked her “What is the answer.” Stein is said to have replied: “In that case, what is the question.” Is not the question more important than the answer? Are not the answers for the most part embedded in the way the questions are formulated? I have always believed the best kind of reasoning, the best analysis or research starts with a good question. Knowing what question to ask is the critical antecedent to obtaining a good answer.

In a recent essay, Pressing Questions for Our Century, A. C. Grayling writes about some of the questions that loom largest in his thinking now and why they cause him the greatest worries. Grayling is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of London who has recently written Ideas that Matter: Key Concepts for the 21st Century. His central concern is how are we to make individuals more aware and better informed about the discoveries of modern science, discoveries that he believes are the greatest achievements to date in human history.

I admire Grayling’s essay for the way he gives serious thought to the questions that really matter to him now or as he puts it what are the most pressing questions of our times. How often do we ask ourselves what are the questions that matter most to us? Here are the five that he regards as most critical.

1 How are we going to involve more people “in the conversation about what’s happening in science—trying to understand it, be informed about it and to be a participant in deciding how we go forward with these developments?”

2. How are we going to preserve, defend and expand civil liberties and human rights throughout the world and avoid their erosion in so many countries, including those where we believe they are widely practiced?

3. How can we best understand the nature of consciousness, perception, thought and memory? How can be best further our understanding of these cognitive process and what is going to “come out of it?”

4. What determines the practice of reading and how will we be reading and reflecting in the future. “What underlies our ability to be good conversationalists with one another, to be reflective…and have a good knowledge of the classics but also be open to new ideas across all the disciplines—history, the sciences, philosophy, and the literary arts?”

5. “How do we keep the best of the past while remaining flexible and receptive to this new world that our technologies are opening to us? Keeping alive the questioning, skeptical, fact-hungry, curious attitude towards the world that the best people in the past have exemplified?”

Grayling begins his essay by saying “I am asking myself a lot of questions at the moment…” I attach considerable importance to that statement and the process it entails. I would hope that we would all begin to identify our own most pressing questions and then proceed, insofar as we are able, to answer them.

I suspect if you take this enterprise seriously what you will end up with more questions that will be just as pressing. This will give a momentum and a direction to your thinking that may be languishing in their absence. Here I speak from personal experience, one that I am presently encountering as I seek to identify the next big project and try to recharge my muse.

4.27.2009

Power of Pen

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society is an epistolary novel, a literary form with a long and at times popular history that extends to the current day. I think of Helene Haff’s 84 Charing Cross Road, and Nick Bantock’s Griffin and Sabine, as well as novels by Jane Austen (Lady Susan), Samuel Richardson (Pamela) and Mary Shelley (Frankenstein).

A few years ago I tried to read a novel consisting of the e-mails of an online romance. While it was in vogue with contemporary epistolary trends, it quickly put an end to my epistolary novel reading days. That is, until the recently published The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society. I waxed and waned about reading book but in the end I succumbed and I very pleased I did. The novel is a charming account of the life of Guernsey islanders during World War 2 when the Germans occupied the island. It also affirms the power reading to sustain people enduring harsh times.

“We read books, talked books, argued over books, and became dearer and dearer to one another.”

“I came to love our book meetings—they helped to make the Occupation bearable. Some of their books sounded fine, but I stayed true to Seneca. I came to feel that he was talking to me—in his funny, biting way—but talking to me alone.”


The farmer, Dawsey Adams, writes a letter to Juliet Ashton whose name he finds on a volume of Charles Lamb’s essays. Since there are no bookstores on Guernsey he wants to know if she might suggest dealer to write to in London. She replies by sending him a copy of Lamb’s letters and asks about the strange name of the literary society mentioned in his letter. In turn, this gives rise to a cascade of letters between Dawsey and Juliet that are soon followed by other correspondents on the island who wish to chime in about the their experience during the German occupation and how the literary society got them through the war.

Juliet is enchanted by these simple people and thinks their story may just be the very topic she will write about for her next book. She goes to the island, gets caught up in the lives of these people, learns about the occupation and ends up adopting the orphan child of a heroic woman, Elizabeth McKenna, who was sent away to a concentration camp for befriending a German soldier. The islanders wonder if she will ever return; sadly she never will be able to. But Juliet stays on the island, falls in love with Dawsey, whom she marries, and together they raise Elizabeth’s child.

“Sea air, sunshine, green fields, wildflowers, the ever-changing sky and ocean, and most of all, the people seem to have seduced her from City life.”

Unfortunately Mary Ann Shaffer did not live to see her book become such a widely read bestseller; her niece, Anne Barrows, completed it. However, before Ms Shaffer died, she penned the following wish for the book’s Acknowledgement:

“I hope these characters and their story shed some light on the sufferings and strength of the people of the Channel Islands during the German Occupation. I hope, too, that my book will illuminate my belief that love of art—be it poetry, storytelling, painting, sculpture, or music—enables people to transcend any barrier man has yet devised.”

4.25.2009

Weekend Links

Book ATM
http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/apr/24/espresso-book-machine-launches

A Mind at Peace

http://www.conversationalreading.com/2009/04/new-book-a-mind-at-peace-by-ahmet-hamdi-tanpinar.html

Where It Happens
http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/series/writersrooms

The Book Channel
http://www.thebookchannel.tv/

Green Decision-Making
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/19/magazine/19Science-t.html?_r=2

A Little Moral Philosophy

http://www.commondreams.org/view/2009/04/24-6

4.24.2009

A Cloud of Snippets

The growing popularity of reading electronic versions of books continues to be a topic of widespread discussion. The latest observer to weigh in on the matter is Steven Johnson in his article, How the E-Book Will Change the Way We Read and Write, in the Wall Street Journal.

Johnson describes a recent “aha” moment, courtesy of the Kindle, when he realized that the migration of printed books to the digital realm would change the very nature of reading profoundly. “It will expand the universe of books at our fingertips and transform the solitary act of reading into something far more social.”

Johnson is not a proponent of this development. Rather, he does “fear that one of the great joys of books reading—the total immersion in another world, or in the world of the author’s ideas—will be compromised. We all may read books the way we increasingly read magazines an newspapers: a little bit here, a little bit there.”

What is most worrisome to me is his claim that we will no longer read in a sustained, concentrated fashion. “Because they have been largely walled off from the world of hypertext, print books have remained a kind of game preserve for the endangered species of liner, deep-focus reading.”

I shudder when I think that electronic devices are going to extinguish the process of “deep-focus reading.” I see that happening. I read about some of its effects on young individuals, on the educational system in general. And I become alarmed.

Johnson suggests that we will buy more books in this new world which is good news for publishers but bad news for readers who aren’t going to finish most of them. Readers he suggests will create snippets of books or a “booklog” where they will select various passages or sections of books to read rather than the entire volume. This is even more worrisome to me.

In a comment on this prediction in the New York Times blog about books, Jennifer Schuessler writes: “What will this mean for the books themselves? Perhaps nothing more than a few strategically placed words or paragraphs. Perhaps entire books will be written with search engines in mind…” so that you’ll be able to create “playlists of [your] favorite literary moments.”

John Updike anticipated all this a few years ago. In an article in the New York Times he bemoaned the transformation of the book into a collection of short snippets, calling it “a pretty grisly scenario.” He continued:

“The printed bound and paid-for book was—still is, for the moment [this was three years ago]—more exacting, more demanding, of its producer and consumer both. It is the site of an encounter, in silence, of two minds, one following in the other’s steps but invited to imagine, to argue, to concur on a level of reflection beyond that of personal encounter …Book readers and writers are approaching the condition of holdouts, surely hermits who refuse to come out and play in the electronic sunshine of the post-Gutenberg village.”

Later he concludes: “The book revolution, which from the Renaissance on, taught men and women to cherish and cultivate their individuality, threatens to end in a sparking cloud of snippets.”

What will the bookshelf of the future look like? What do short snippets of text look like? Do they have covers? Do they smell musty? Do they have words? Do you imagine wanting only to read the first paragraph of A Farewell to Arms or the first sentence of Anna Karenina? Yes, a pretty grisly scenario? Grim, too.

4.23.2009

Third Person, Present Tense

“His refuge from IBM is the cinema. In a film called L’Eclisse a woman wanders through the streets of a sunstruck, deserted city…. The woman is Monica Vitti. With her perfect legs and sensual lips and abstracted look, Monica Vitti haunts him; he falls in love with her. He has dreams in which he, of all men in the world is singled out to be her comfort and solace…”

The passage is from Noble Prize winner J. M. Coezee’s Youth, a portrait of a young man growing up in South Africa who eventually takes flight to London in the early 1960’s. I have enormous respect for Coetzee’s works, both his novels and essays on literature and the arts. Youth is among my favorite of his novels and like others he has published is written in the third person, present tense. It is a lively style that is fun to read and just as much to write.

John, the narrator of Youth, dreams of being a poet. To support his apprenticeship, he leaves his home in South Africa and takes a job at IBM’s office in London. He believes “The artist must taste all experience from the noblest to the most degraded. Just as it is the artist’s destiny to experience the most supreme creative joy, so he must be prepared to take upon himself all in life that is miserable, squalid, ignominious. It was in that name of experience that he underwent London--the dead days of IBM, the icy winter of 1962, one humiliating affair after another: states in the poet’s life, all of them, in testing of his soul.”

His relationships with women are uniform failures: “Surely there is a form of cohabitation in which man and woman eat together, sleep together, live together, yet remain immersed in their respective inward explorations. Is that why the affair with Jacqueline was doomed to fail: because, not being an artist herself, she could not appreciate the artist’s need for inner solitude?”

Jacqueline suggests he should consider psychotherapy. He thinks that would ruin forever his poetic sensitivity. “In fact, he would not dream of going into therapy. The goal of therapy is to make one happy. What is the point of that? Happy people are not interesting. Better to accept the burden of unhappiness and try to turn it into something worthwhile, poetry or music or painting…”

Aside from the tale of John’s struggle to carve out an artistic life in London and aside from all his defeats with women, work and writing, the most striking feature of Youth is its style. It may be the first book, surely the first presumed autobiography I’ve read written in the third person, present tense. It is a seductive style, one that gives the writer a certain distance from his subject matter, in this case, Coetzee.

In a review of Youth, Giles Foden writes: “What Coetzee mainly draws from Conrad, however, is a method. The technique of both novelists depends on that “nice ironic distance,” a discrepancy between the manifest and latent content of words on the page, a way of saying without asserting.”

This technique, at least as practiced by Coetzee in Youth also lends itself to a sly, ironic humor that at times is very funny.

“What are his true thoughts anyway? Some days he feels happy…Other days he feels differently. Is the truth the happiness, the unhappiness or the average of the two?”

“Who is to say that at each moment while the pen moves he is truly himself? At one moment he might truly be himself, at another he might simply be making things up. How can he know for sure? Why should he even want to know for sure?”

“Having mistresses is part of an artist’s life…Art cannot be fed on deprivation alone…”

“Is that the moral of the story of himself and Jacqueline: that it is best for artists to have affairs only with artists?”


In the third person, present tense, I find it is much easier to write about myself than say, in the first person, past tense. I can admit features of my life that are less than commendable and do so without embarrassment. No one will ever know it is me anyway. Of course, that isn’t true but it seems that way as the words roll out onto the page. And in this respect writing in the third person, present tense can present a truer account of one’s life, a more complete one I think, than when you write about your life with some degree of restraint and concealment.

4.22.2009

The Inner Life of Letters

It is widely claimed that an e-mail differs from a written letter in several notable respects. In The Inner Life of E-Mail (Salmagundi Winter-Spring 2007), Philip Stevick claims that a “highly stylized, ritualized performance” takes place when we write an e-mail but not in writing a letter.

“Although the recipient is obviously not present, a rather considerable range of performance strategies are available. Writers of letters would seem to be free to manipulate their texts, disarranging lines, marking emphases in various ways, drawing little pictures. But writers of conventional letters almost never do. It seems vulgar and indecorous to do so in a letter….But all writers of e-mail know that their texts are remarkably malleable and many people do indeed manipulate their texts unthinkable in a letter.”

Is this the case? In a letter to Nadejda von Meck, Tchaikovsky wrote:

“It seems to me that letters are not perfectly sincere—I am judging by myself. No matter to whom I am writing, I am always conscious of the effect of my letter, not only upon the person to whom it is addressed, but by any chance reader. Consequently, I embroider…I am not quite myself in my correspondence….When I read the correspondence of great men, published after there death, I am always disturbed by a vague sense of insincerity and falsehood.”

Isn’t this true for almost any form of communication? A friend wrote to me:

“…the same could be said of all evidence. Do you not think that the same thing could be said of many a diary keeper? …No biographical or historical evidence should be taken as fact in isolation. The historian or biographer can only say if it all adds up to a coherent picture. …is anyone ever really writing JUST for themselves when they write a diary? I don’t think so—even when they think they are. I think, even if just unconsciously a writer has to be aware of the potential “audience” as soon as the mental becomes physical.”

There is also reason to doubt the claim that e-mails are sent without much deliberation or, as Stevick suggests, in a rather “casual, improvisational” manner that is “unthinkable in a letter.” It certainly isn’t characteristic of messages composed offline, which I often do, especially when I want them to be written carefully. They are not necessarily written in a frenzy or carelessly edited.

I have known others who do the same. A friend writes: “I can assure you that I spent ample time crafting those expression [sent in an e-mail] that was equal if not greater than most of my paper letters.” In turn the recipient may take just as much time and care in replying, so that the entire exchange may take several days or weeks to complete. In this way, an online exchange can mirror the delicate temporal features of sending and receiving a traditional letter sent through the mail.

Thus, I find wanting the claim that an e-mail message differs significantly from a letter. In some cases, they are functionally indistinguishable. An e-mail message does not simply disappear after they have been sent if the writer takes pains to print a copy. Nor must they be replied to or composed instantly. There is nothing about an e-mail message per se that prevents it from being every bit as literate as a traditional letter often is.

Do we write e-mails when we should be writing traditional letters instead? I grappled with this problem a few years ago in writing to the parents of the woman my son became engaged to marry. I spent a good deal of time crafting my letter. Naturally, this was done on the computer. When I had finished, I puzzled over how to send it.

Should I print the letter, put it an envelope and post it in the mail? Or simply e-mail it to them? Yes, the posted letter still seemed the proper thing to do and I didn't want them to think I didn't know my manners. But I wanted to communicate with them right away. I knew the letter would take the better part of a week to reach them. What would be so wrong about e-mailing it to them? In either case, the message would be identical. "Get with it, Richard," I declared. I e-mailed the parents my letter. They replied in kind the very next day. We have been e-mailing each with pleasure ever since.

4.21.2009

Losing Permanence

When was the last time you received a personal letter in the mail, one written or typed from a person you know? When was the last time you wrote such a letter? In the days before the Internet this is the way we communicated. I miss those days. I miss getting a letter in the mailbox once in a while.

And those who wish to study the past and learn more about it will miss the treasure chest of such letters if the practice of writing them succumbs to the lure of e-mails. What will happen when it becomes time to write the histories of our era? No more letters to be found in the archives. What will happen to the biographers of the future? No more letters between the poets and their writer friends. Who saves their e-mails these days?

I am writing this note because I wish to encourage a return to fine art of writing letters, to what Yeats called one of the excellent old ways. I am also writing this note while reading a delightful new book, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, written in the manner of an epistolary novel, a literary form that could claim some degree of popularity a century or so ago.

In the introduction to The Oxford Book of Letters published in 1995, the editors, Frank and Anita Kermode, make the following claim. “Most of us write at least half a dozen letters of one sort or another every week, so that in the fifty or sixty years of a normal letter writing life many people must dispatch 18,000 letters.”

Who in the world could they be talking about? Since they are English, they are no doubt referring to people who live in Great Britain. But it is hard to imagine the British are much different in this respect than individuals who live in the United States. I suspect most of us are lucky if we write less than half a dozen genuine letters in a year.

Of course, now we write e-mails instead of letters, a mode of communication that many commentators claim is indistinguishable from a traditional letter. In my view, electronic epistles bear only a distant relationship with such letters. They are shorter and usually far less serious or reasoned than a carefully composed letter, especially when they are drafted as rapidly as e-mails usually are.

In a New Yorker essay a few years ago Noelle Oxenhandler maintained they also differ greatly in the temporal features and in the rhythms associated with they way are composed and then sent. She wrote:

“....I used to love the feeling of dropping a letter into the box. For several days, the letter-in-transit would hover around the edges of my consciousness. This delay was an intrinsic part of the pleasure of letter writing. It had a special tense all its own: when the “must do” turns into the “just done.” And, as the letter hovered, I also savored a kind of prescience in relation to my friend. During those two or three days, I knew, at least in some small measure, what would befall her: a letter in the box! As Iris Murdock has written, “The sending of a letter constitutes a magical grasp upon the future.” But now the old magic has given way to the new. And though a fax or an E-mail may lie in wait for its recipient, it nonetheless gets from here to there in a matter of moments, and its waiting has none of the sealed mystery about it that attends a letter in its envelope.”


Others have pointed out that letters have a degree of permanence that is quite different than messages sent over the Internet. In a review of M. F. K. Fischer’s A Life in Letters, Betty Fussell comments: “Had she lived in another decade, many of her letters might have been lost forever, flashed on screen to be read and discarded in a matter of minutes. A Life in Letters reminds one of what is lost in the magic of electronic mail: permanence.”

4.20.2009

The Truly Correct Proof


The nature of friendship and love for that matter is at times elusive. One day we are friends and the next enemies or all but forgotten. This was certainly true of the former mathematics professor in Yoko Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor. The Professor in this novel, like all the other characters, is never given a name. Nor can he remember anything new for more than 80 minutes.

The Professor lost the ability to recall anything beyond that period following an automobile accident in 1975. A housekeeper cooks and cleans for him in the rundown cottage where he lives. Each time the housekeeper arrives she has to explain who she is as the Professor has completely forgotten about her overnight. And each time she does this, the Professor asks her what her shoe size is or the date of her birth or something strange like that, whereupon he always finds something rather remarkable about the number she comes up with.

In time, the Professor learns that the housekeeper’s ten-year old son waits for her mother at school until the workday is over. When he learns this, he insists that the boy come with her to work. He names the boy Root because of his flat head and informs him that the mathematical sign for square root looks like the top of his head.

The friendship that develops between the boy and the Professor is a tender, deeply felt one but is never fully explained. Perhaps the Professor had a son or lost one or always wanted one. We are never told. Regardless, the Professor routinely asks Root questions when he arrives and that are, in turn followed by others from the boy. The Professor

“…seemed convinced that children’s questions were much more important than those of an adult. He preferred smart questions to smart answers.”

And if the Professor or the young boy didn’t know the answer, it was important to admit it.

“For the Professor, there was no shame in admitting you didn’t have the answer, it was a necessary step toward the truth. It was as important to teach us about the unknown or the unknowable as it was to teach us what had already been safely proven.”


The Housekeeper and the Professor has a strange, serene quality about it. Nothing much happens other than a good deal of discussion of mathematics, including the mathematics of baseball.

Like the Professor, Charlie Mallory in John Cheever’s short story, The Geometry of Love, also looked to mathematics to understand his world.

“He might not, had he possessed any philosophy or religion, have needed geometry, but the religious observances in his neighborhood seemed to him boring and threadbare, and he had no disposition for philosophy. Geometry served him beautifully for the metaphysics of pain.”

“The afternoon’s geometry had proved to him that his happiness….suffered from some capricious, unfathomable, and submarine course of emotion…that had no regularity and no discernable cause.”

“Oh, Euclid, be with me now.”

The Professor and the Housekeeper
has been extremely popular in Japan, selling more than 2.5 million copies. Even a book Oprah recommends would never find that many readers in this country. The story is also similar to several actual cases reported by memory researchers in which an individual is not able to remember anything new after a fixed period of time.

The tale also conveys much of the serenity and simplicity that we have come to associate with traditional Asian culture. I was drawn to this feature of the novel and the reason I found it so appealing. Ogawa beautifully conveys the peace that the Professor finds in math and then to Root and his mother as they eventually discover the truth of a math puzzle the Professor has set before them.

“The truly correct proof is one that strikes a harmonious balance between strength and flexibility. There are plenty of proofs that are technically correct but are messy and inelegant or counterintuitive. But it’s not something you can put into words—explaining why a formula is beautiful is like trying to explain why the stars are beautiful.”

4.18.2009

Weekend Links

Ten Books on Brothers
http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/apr/14/brothers-fiction-top-10

Poems on Paintings
http://homepage.mac.com/mseffie/assignments/paintings&poems/titlepage.html

Video Auditions
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/17/arts/music/17symphony.html?th&emc=th

Extraordinary Memoir
http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=102691854&sc=nl&cc=bn-20090416

If You Missed This, Now’s Your Chance
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9lp0IWv8QZY

The Future of the Book
http://www.cleveland.com/entertainment/index.ssf/2009/04/in_our_digital_age_what_does_t_1.html

4.17.2009

The Power of the Pen

In the early morning light on this island in the tropics, I drink my coffee outside on the lanai, as it is called here. The trade winds had moved on and the canal along the building where I live is calm. Dover Beach drifts into my mind.

The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand;
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!


Two stanzas later it concludes:

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.


And then I am reminded of a section in Ian McEwan’s Saturday where Dover Beach came to the rescue, indeed, saved the lives of Henry Perowne and his family. Perowne, a well-established London neurosurgeon, returns home after a harrowing Saturday in 2003 as America is about to launch its second war in Iraq. On the way to his early morning squash match, he is involved in a minor automobile collision with a criminal that Perowne immediately recognizes has an irreversible brain disease.

Later that day, the criminal returns to Perowne’s elegant home to take revenge on him and those who have gathered to welcome the return of his daughter, Daisy. Baxter, the criminal, is holding a knife to Perowne’s wife, Rosalind, and asks Daisy, whom he has told to strip, to read from her newly published book of poems. She is terrified, doesn’t know if she can begin or what to read, and looks to her poet grandfather, Grammaticus, for a hint. He senses her dilemma and tells her to read one that she used to recite for him. Daisy catches the hint at once and begins reciting Dover Beach.

Baxter is transfixed by the beauty of the poem. “You wrote that. You wrote that,” he says in amazement. He asks her to read it again. When she is done reciting, Baxter’s mood changes suddenly. He is thoroughly disarmed, overcome, as McEwan writes, by “a yearning he could barely begin to define.” He removes the knife from Rosalind’s neck, puts it back in his pocket, and tells his sidekick he has changed his mind; the tension is broken, the threat is over, and the eventual overpowering of Baxter can begin.

Here, in the extreme is the power of literature. In fact, it saved the life of Perowne and his family. The experience is not only the stuff of fiction. While not exactly a work of literature, reading from a book called The Purpose-Driven Life played a central role in saving the life of Ashley Smith, who was a year or so ago held hostage for hours in her suburban apartment near Atlanta by Brian Nicholas, on the run after killing two people during his escape from a courthouse trial for an earlier murder.

Smith claims that reading and speaking with Nicholas about the book gave her a chance to simply talk with him and begin the process of gaining his trust so that he would allow her to leave the apartment to see her daughter. Once out of the apartment, she called 911; Nicholas was captured moments later. Who knows what might have happened had she not been able to read sections of the book to Nicholas?

4.16.2009

Do Parents Matter?

In the April 9th issue of Mind Matters Judith Harris was interviewed about her recently expanded and highly controversial volume The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do. This widely discussed book questioned one of the most cherished views of child rearing--that parents are the major determinants of their children’s personality and behavior. Harris argued that parental influence has been vastly overestimated and that the children’s peers play a far more important role in shaping their behavior than is usually assumed.

Harris brought to bear a large number of studies demonstrating that whatever influence parents have is overshadowed in the long run by the child’s peer group. She pointed out that most of the research usually cited to support the importance of parents is “so deeply flawed that it is meaningless. And studies using more rigorous methods produce results that do not support the assumption.”

She cited studies of identical twins (reared apart or together) to show that genetic factors control about a half of a person's intellect and personality. She points out that since her book was written, the methodology of genetic research has improved so that there is now a much greater appreciation of the genetic influences on personality. “Unless we know what the child brings to the environment, we can’t figure out what effect the environment has on the child.”

Other studies of fatherless children are consistent with this evidence. Rearing a child without an adult male in the household appears to have very little particular impact on children. Instead, factors associated with income, frequency of moving, and peer relationships are said to matter more.

Harris also points out that measuring behavior in these studies is clearly a function of the situation where it occurs. She says “I’ve put together a lot of evidence showing that children learn at home how to behave at home (that’s where parents do have power!) and they learn outside the home how to behave outside the home.

So if you want to improve the way children behave in school—for instance by making them more diligent and less disruptive in the classroom—then improving their home environment is not the way to do it. What you need is a school-based intervention. That’s where teachers have power. A talented teacher can influence a whole group of kids.”


My own feeling is that the issues surrounding this controversy say less about the influence of parents on their children and far more about the methods used to obtain the evidence, especially the methods used to assess adult behavior and personality. Frankly, I do not believe these methods tap the important dimensions of human personality and intellectual ability. Nor do I think the findings have a very high degree of generality. Each of us can ask: Do they apply to me? The question is unanswerable. There is simply no procedure for determining for whom the findings hold and for whom they don't.

It is also true that critics have tended to falsely conclude from Harris’s notions that parents don’t matter much at all. Of course, they matter; they matter a great deal but not in the all ways we have usually assumed. We learn a great many things from our parents but it isn’t like necessarily very specific.

Instead, we learn from them very general aspects of character and motivation. We learn to value learning, not any particular discipline. We see what it means to be generous and helpful, not any particular instance of these acts. In short, our parents provide exemplars for those deeper aspects of human character and feeling that find are expressed in the sort of person we become.

4.15.2009



Sara Houghteling’s first novel Pictures At An Exhibition recounts the story of Max Berenzon’s effort to recover the paintings confiscated by the Nazi’s during World War II. The chronicle begins by describing the art collection that his father, Daniel Berenzon, held before the War began. The novel is based on the true-to-life story of Daniel Berenzon the highly respected Jewish collector of the works of Picasso, Matisee and the likes.

When the Berenzon family returned to Paris after hiding in rural France during the war, they discovered that their priceless collection has been looted. Max begins the problematical task of finding as many of paintings as he can and capture the love of his father’s assistant Rose who remains as elusive as the confiscated paintings.

“If you only love a thing for the chase of it, you don’t question if you love the thing itself because you never get close enough to see. You love to yearn, Max, you love to desire. But desire is simpler than love.”

While art plays the central role in the novel, music is always playing quietly in the background. That should be clear from its title drawn from Mussorgsky’s well-known piano suite of the same name. Early in the novel Max’s piano playing mother explains to him how each movement in this piece represents an artwork viewed at an actual exhibition.

"This, the Promenade that I am playing, means Mussorgsky was walking between paintings. Movement One. And the first painting he saw was The Gnome and that’s Movement Two…Then he sees another painting—I could hear a key change—and that’s The Old Castle. This is the closet you can ever get to that exhibition. They say all of Hartmann’s paintings have been lost, so there is only the music.”

Pictures At An Exhibition is clearly a work of considerable scholarship. While I know very little about art or art collecting, the story appealed to me a great deal. No doubt, I was hoping Max would redeem himself to his doubting father by finding a fair number of the looted paintings and that he would win the love of lovely and mysterious Rose and just as much by the story of the Jews of France during the Nazi occupation or the more general issue of coming to terms with loss of anything so precious.

Whatever the reasons, and I am sure there is more than one, I thought the novel was a substantial and elegantly told tale that read much like a historical mystery. To learn more about the novel and its background, I invite you to view the author’s presentation of it on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=REqAU3JsX7w

4.14.2009

Reflections

Some personal reflections on Stoner, the novel I discussed yesterday. Stoner was a teacher at a mid-western university. I was teacher at a college in Oregon. Our lives were not entirely dissimilar.

Like Stoner’s, my life was forever changed by a course I took in college. In Stoner’s case it was one on Shakespeare. In my case it was one in the history of western civilization. After taking that course, I knew that wanted to spend the rest of my life in the academy and that nothing else would ever come close. Never once have I regretted that decision.

Like William Stoner there were times when I was a relatively popular teacher and other times a rather indifferent one. In the beginning, I really had to learn the stuff and I really had to learn how to teach. You don’t learn any of that in graduate school, of course. I was young, the youngest member of the department, and the students, who I loved being around, were only slightly younger.

They were intelligent, energetic, and a bit nutty, as is often the case at Reed College and were also attracted by the research I was doing. If I was interested in some issue, so were they. (Much later this kind of influence frightened me.) My lab was crowded, as were my classes. It was pretty heady stuff. Looking back on it now, it seems inconceivable--I was studying problems in animal conditioning and the students wanted to work with me.

While I felt privileged to be at the College and continually amazed that I was being paid to engage in the scholarly life I led, eventually I became more and more disenchanted with academic life. The never-ending administrative responsibilities, the tedious committee meetings, and the faculty wrangling and politicking gradually turned me away.

Above all, after teaching psychology for almost 25 years, I really wasn’t much in love with it anymore. I am sure that was reflected in my classes and departmental activities. I knew, like Stoner did, that you really have to love your work to be good at it. It was then that I realized it was time for me to leave the College.

I was always a reader, it did not take me long to begin the second act of my life in literature. Other than the subject matter of the discipline, I’m really not doing anything different than I always did. However, like Stoner, I realize how much I do not know.

“Sometimes, immersed in his books, it would come to him the awareness of all that he did not know, of all that he had not read: and the serenity for which he labored was shattered as he realized the little time he had in life to read so much, to learn what he had to know.”


I saw a film last weekend, a virtually unknown Swedish film, As It Is In Heaven that suddenly made its appearance at a local theater. The film was nominated for the Best Foreign Film in 2005 is about a highly acclaimed orchestra conductor who retires from the musical world after experiencing a heart attack at the end of a performance.

He returns to the small Swedish village of his youth where in time he becomes the leader of the mill church choir whose members have no real music talent. After working with the group as well as each member separately, he comes to realize his long held dream “to create music that would open people’s hearts.” He works an almost miraculous transformation in the choir’s singing.

After seeing the film I realized how much the story reflected the most satisfying feature of my life as a teacher. It was to see an individual become a first rate scholar after entering the college without much in the way of intellectual background. At times I saw it happen in some of my students. Here I thought was the true measure of a teacher.

4.13.2009

Stoner




Stoner by John Williams, a largely forgotten novel, has to be one of the saddest I’ve ever read. It is also, as one reviewer put it “a perfect novel, so well told and beautifully written, so deeply moving, that it takes your breath away.” Another called it a “joy to read.” While I thought it to be a superbly written tale and one that struck a responsive cord, it was at the same time as tragic as a novel can be.

William Stoner was raised on a farm in Missouri that was a constant struggle to maintain. He entered college to learn modern agricultural techniques. Early on he was so profoundly moved by a course on Shakespeare that he decided to change his studies to literature.

“But the required survey of English literature troubled and disquieted him in a way nothing had ever done before.”

“The love of literature, of language, of the mystery of the mind and heart showing themselves in the minute, strange, and unexpected combinations of letters and words, in the blackest and coldest print—the love which he had hidden as if it were illicit and dangerous, he began to display, tentatively at first, and then boldly and then proudly.”


After completing graduate studies he became a teacher of English at the University of Missouri. From the beginning though he found it difficult to establish himself in the department and gain the respect of his students and colleagues. But Stoner never advanced beyond the assistant professor level, although there were times when he was a rather popular teacher. Yet he was held back by a bitter dispute with another member of the department who also had the power to expose a close and deeply felt relationship he had with one of his students.

“Lust and learning, Katherine [the student] once said. That’s really all there is, isn’t it?”

His life took few truly happy turns. His marriage soon grew stale: “In his forty-third year William Stoner learned what others much younger, had learned before him: that the person one loves at first is not the person one loves at last, and that love is not an end but a process through which one persona attempts to know another.”

After he dies, Stoner is scarcely remembered by those in his department: “Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers.”

Toward the end of the novel Stoner reflects on his life: “Dispassionately, reasonably, he contemplated the failure that his life must appear to be. He had wanted friendship and the closeness of friendship that might hold him in the race of mankind…He had wanted the singleness and the still connective passion of marriage; he had had that too, and he had not known what to do with it, and it had died…And he had wanted to be a teacher, and he had become one; yet he knew, he had always known, that for most of his life he had been an indifferent one. He had dreamed of a kind of integrity, of a kind of purity that was entire; he had found compromise and the assaulting diversion of triviality. He had conceived wisdom, and at the end of the long years he had found ignorance."

Stoner wanted so much out of life. He loved his work, the books he treasured in the library and the great pleasure in spending hours there, he cherished the joy that literature brought to his life. And yet he knew that “what he wished was impossible, and the knowledge saddened him.”

Stoner knew that it was the love of a thing that was essential and that he truly loved the life he led. He knew that without that kind of devotion no one would ever achieve any degree of distinction. He never abandoned this belief and so through it all he had retained to the full his integrity. In spite of the simple and sad tale it unfolded and the tragic conditions of William Stoner’s life, Stoner was quite simply one of the finest novels I’ve read in recent years.

4.11.2009

Weekend Links

Let’s Dance!
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vq6b9bMBXpg

Down and Out in Paris & London
http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/bookclub

Overcoming the Demons
http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/apr/04/writing-depression-catharsis-margaret-drabble

On Writing Fragments
http://www.fraglit.com

Festival of World Voices
http://www.pen.org

Music Therapy
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/29/arts/music/29gure.html?_r=1

4.10.2009

A Literary Conversation

Leonard Schiller is an example of one of my literary friends, although he is surely long gone by now. Schiller is the central character in Starting Out in the Evening, a novel by Brian Morton that amused me greatly when I read it a few years ago. (The novel was recently made into a film with the same title that featured Frank Langella as Leonard Schiller. I found Langella nothing like the Schiller depicted in the novel and the film so disappointed me that I will say nothing more about it here other than repeat my dismay over yet another casting debacle.)

Leonard Schiller is an aging writer. His early novels had a profound influence on a woman, Heather Wolfe, a graduate student in literature. She arranges to meet him in order to gather materials for her thesis on his work. The novel describes the course of their relationship. While that naturally charmed me, I was even more intrigued by the character of the old writer.

He was 71, fat, fastidious and very slow afoot. He is not well, suffers from various ailments, although he hasn’t lost his wit entirely. It was his age that got to me. I am not far removed from 71 and was ill at the time I read the book. I dread being the way he was depicted in the tale--his slow shuffle, his ugly body, and lack of productivity. And I dreaded my illness that continued day after day while I was reading about his.

Of course, all this contrasted with the youth, the spirit, and gumption of the young woman. This difference made the book for me. Not the witty, attractive Heather or the aging, infirm Schiller. Not the numerous philosophical insights scattered densely throughout the novel. But the striking contrast between youth and old age. Between a vigorous and talented young person and an old and weary man. For a moment, a very brief one, she made him feel young again. For a moment, she made me feel young again too.

Starting Out in the Evening was also chock-full of the sort of truths and philosophical insights that characterize serious fiction at its best. If literature can become a conversation between the reader and the character on the page, this book, at least in my case, was an exemplar par excellence.

Morton: Maybe the best thing for your health would be to have a fascinating young woman in your life.

Katzev: No doubt about it. I’ll feel alive again. It will be exhilarating. Still, it can only last awhile. Eventually it will become as tedious as anything else and the consequences will surely be devastating. Of course, none of this will deter me in the least.

M: If life had taught her anything—if she had a philosophy of life—it probably boiled down to that: Go with the skid.

K: Perhaps so. At times I wish I had been able to able to go with the skid. Things might have been a bit different. But then it wouldn’t have been me.

M: Maybe you reach an age where you have to compromise. Isn’t that the essence of maturity?

K: I know this view is rather fashionable and always thought to be productive. But what good is a compromise if your principles fall by the wayside?

M: Life made more sense in the Middle Ages, when no one lasted past forty.

K: Often now I think how much truth there is to this idea. What is the purpose of going on day after day without anything to show for it other than a co-payment receipt from the doctor?

M: …brain-dead aura of the suburbs.

K: Love that phrase. It captures my experience in the suburbs exactly. It is all encompassing and associated with great wave of sleepiness.

M: The primary human need, he decided—stronger than the need for food or sex or love—is the need for recognition, the need to make a mark in the world.

K: It isn’t primarily the recognition although that can be enjoyed for a moment. It’s the “making of a mark” that is the stronger of the two. It motivates just about everything I do, even though I am nothing but an amateur.

M: She had given him an astonishing gift, the gift of her interest…[she] had accomplished the impossible: she had made him feel young.

K: A gift most fervently desired. Where does one find such “interest” these days? It isn’t much to ask, after all.

Starting Out in the Evening
was a sad tale of an aging and infirm author, whose writing life was over but who could still be moved by another person. As I read the book, I saw all too much of myself in Schiller. But I also enjoyed being surprised by his insights and chatting with him about them. We don't have an easy time knowing ourselves. Sometimes a good book makes our task a little easier, to say nothing of the pleasure it gives to talk things over with someone else.

4.09.2009

The Reality of Fiction

Art is a lie which makes us realize the truth. Picasso

I have quite a few fictional friends, probably more than are actually alive. They offer me the pleasure of their company. They engage me in conversation, pose questions, pass along ideas worthy of consideration, and point the way out of the mundane dilemmas that unsettle my days. It is a treat to know them. They don't shout or insult me and from time to time they are a source of those truths that do not, as so many have said before, appear in any source other than literature. Who could ask for more of any friend, fictional or otherwise?

While the personal relationships we form with our fictional friends can be a genuine pleasure, they can also complicate the lives of authors as well as readers. This point is discussed by Alexander McCall Smith in a delightful article in the April 4th issue of The Wall Street Journal. McCall is the author of more than sixty books, mostly mysteries, including the popular “No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” series, now showing on HBO.

Smith recounts the following tale about one of his heroines called Isabel Dalhousie, a woman in her early 40s who has a boyfriend 14 years younger. As he was signing a copy of one of the books from this series a woman approached him and said: “…this relationship between Isabel and Jamie, the younger man, was not a good idea at all.”

Smith replied: “Why shouldn’t they be together?” The answer came quickly. "Because it’s not going to go anywhere.” “But I thought it was going rather well,” Smith protested. Again my reader lost no time in replying. “No, it isn’t she said emphatically.”

From other similar incidents and criticisms, Smith concludes “that the world of fiction and the world of real flesh-and blood people are not quite as separate as one might imagine. Writing is a moral act: What you write has a real effect on others, often to a rather surprising extent.”

His point is not only that readers experience fictional characters and incidents as real but in addition that it has serious implications for how characters are depicted in novels. He says it can be inhibiting for an author if he or she knows that what happens in fiction is going to be taken so seriously.

In this respect, a novel is no different than a film or television show that depicts cruel and extreme acts of violence. Many object to these presentations because they are repugnant and also because they can trigger similar acts in some viewers. The impact of media violence is a widely discussed issue, but it is rarely associated with depictions of similar events in novels.

A novel is not just a story. Readers often experience what happens to characters on the page as real. We develop fictional friends, we are sad when they experience an unfortunate event, elated when they overcome an obstacle, and when a character in a mystery commits a gruesome murder we are distressed and even more so if the act goes unpunished. Unless, as Smith notes, they are someone like Tom Ripley in the Patricia Highsmith novels, who we may be rather pleased if he goes unpunished. Why is that?

Smith answers: “Perhaps we merely want his story to continue because we are enjoying it so much. If Ripley had been arrested, or disposed of by somebody he had crossed, then that would have been the end of the series, and that would have been a disappointment.”

“Stories have an effect in this world. They are part of our moral conversation as a society. They weigh in; they change the world because they become part of our cultural history. There never was an Anna Karenina or a Madam Bovary…but what happened to these characters has become part of the historical experience of women.”
And I should add, men too.

Smith confesses that when he viewed a pilot scene in the HBO series on “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency,” he found himself “weeping copiously, right there on the set. I felt rather embarrassed—it was only a story, after all.” The director, Anthony Minghella put his hand on Smith’s shoulder and said “that was exactly what he had done over that particular scene.”

4.08.2009

Realizing Interconnectedness

Every now and then I go through the file I keep on literature and discover a nugget that I had completely forgotten about. There are profiles of my favorite authors, research studies I thought to be of some merit, or an occasional e-mail exchange I had about some question. Several of these concern the effects of reading literary fiction, a topic that is central to my current interest in literature. Here is a dialogue of sorts I discovered recently.

Questioner

I’ve been thinking of this question: What is the effect of reading literature on an individual’s personality and behavior? Here I refer to literature in the narrow sense of fiction, poetry, and creative non-fiction. Does reading influence the life we lead or the path we have chosen to take? I sense it does, but is there any evidence for this? I haven’t found much research on this question, although I imagine literary critics have given a good deal of thought to it.

Respondent
Okay, good question, here goes. I’ll give it a try. What is the value of literature? Does it help people? I think so, but why and how. I’ve given it some thought before, but glad to have the question come up again, this time posed by another other than myself. That’s refreshing.

My first thought is that people recognize themselves in the lives of characters in stories. It mitigates loneliness and isolation to realize interconnectedness. That’s helpful. To read about a character experiencing the same kind of existential and moral struggles, finding solutions, living life’s causes and effects makes one feel less alone in the world. I see myself. I can reflect on the lives of the Ahab and Moby as I might my friends, a mirror in which to see my own reflection.

I think literature like good visual art draws us toward our potential. I mean that certain moral existential truths presented in literature are digestible in this form, whereas didactic tracts often bore, condescend, and aren’t necessarily effective. I believe literature only echoes the truths that we already know inside at some level; it just gives us a step up. We can say—aha, yes, I see for myself and I see myself in this universal problem. I knew this but I just didn’t know it consciously. Now I can act from a new-found consciousness, perhaps being more responsible in the world.

So it is important then to define literature, I think. I’ll give it a try. Certainly all fiction, poetry or creative nonfiction is not literature, maybe you’ll agree. Just as all pieces of visual creation aren’t art. Literature to me is a successfully realized vision executed in words, a work all of one piece with very few, if any, extraneous words. It’s a unified creation, a thing of beauty with integrity and an overlying gestalt. A tall order, I guess. Risking redundancy I’ll say there’s something special that happens—inspiration (dictionary definition: a divine influence directly exerted upon the mind or soul.)

Well, that’s it for now. I’m certain I’ll have more thoughts on the subject. Right now you’ve compelled me to brainstorm a bit, perhaps I’ve waxed a wee bombastically, but oh well. Sometimes these tough questions just come out that way.

Thanks for the good question. So, what do you think about the subject?


The forgoing answer is a verbatim, unedited transcription of one individual’s answer to my question. It came to me in an e-mail exchange from an individual whose name regrettably I did not record and of course do not remember now. I believe it was written about seven years ago when I first started thinking about the effects of reading literary fiction. When I chanced upon the page the other day, I once again thought how well the author expressed him or her self and how perceptive I thought the answer was. I am posting it for these reasons, as well as to provide the perspective of another reader.

4.07.2009

Reading on the Page & the Screen

The more significant section of Stephen Carter’s article in The Daily Beast that I discussed yesterday concerns the difference between reading a printed book and an e-book. Carter claims “the notion that we will experience texts the same way once they migrate to cyberspace is a fantasy.” So his concern about these two modes or reading is not simply a matter of the text’s physical existence but rather the nature of the reading experience itself.

Are we engaged with the text in the same way when we read it on the screen as we are when we read it on the printed page? Do we read the text as deeply and as thoroughly in the two modes? And what about recall of the material or our ability to apply what we read in some other situation? Aside from all the conjecture there has been about this issue, is there any evidence on these questions? The research in this area is just beginning.

According to Carter, the pilot studies that have been conducted on retention indicate that “readers who look at texts online have trouble retaining as much as those who view it on a printed page.” Carter gives no reference to the primary study he refers to nor does he explain why some critics claim the results are “artifactual.” However, he does suggest that perhaps we will find a different outcome once we have additional data from future generations that have been raised to read on the screen rather than the printed page.

He cites another study on “young” children that suggest that children may learn as much information with either mode of presentation, “but are less able to interact with the text presented on the screen.” Again, he leaves out crucial details such as the age of the children, the nature of the reading material, and what exactly he means by “interact with the text.”

The issues here stand in need of systematic analysis. And any such inquiry should take account of the three most common forms of reading on the screen—an e-book, a computer, and now a mobile phone, all of which provide opportunities for reading the same material that is available on the printed page. As far as I know there is no evidence at this time that provides a rigorous comparison of these four types of reading experience.

We do know a little about how the eyes scan the text in screen reading. Rather than reading across a line and then in order down the lines of printed text, when we read on the screen we tend to scan about the text looking for content meaning and that our eyes follow an F-shaped pattern, quickly darting across the text in search for the major point of the article. Is this reading? And do we sometimes read a book or periodical any differently?

There is also the matter how the reading experience affects us. When I read a book, I often stop to reflect on the ideas and moods it engenders along the way and write a comment in the margin or simply mark the passage. Does this kind of activity occur when I read on a computer screen? Surely, not as often. And I rarely make a note or comment while reading a document on the screen. If the material is of sufficient importance to me, I will simply print a copy and thereby transfer the material to the printed page where I can readily make note of my ideas.

I don’t know what I’d do if I read the material on a Kindle and, as long as I can still obtain what I want to read on a printed page, I’m not sure I even want to try. Maybe this is a generational thing. I don’t know anyone my age who reads much, if at all, with an e-book, although I do know many younger individuals who are quite content to switch back and forth between reading on the screen and the page.

Finally, I do worry a good deal about what the digital revolution will do to the commonplace book tradition. Will readers still keep a record of the notable passages they have read? When I asked a person who reads a great deal this question, I was informed that it is possible to “record” passages on the Kindle and download them to a computer, but that she does this less often now with her e-book and is way behind in her record keeping.

Does this portend the end of the commonplace book tradition? Perhaps we are entering a transition period where those of who continue to engage in this practice will be replaced by a generation raised to “read” on the screen and find little need to keep a record of this experience.

Carter ends his essay on an ominous note. He says “we can be certain of one thing: “A screen is not the same as a page, and, as the migration continues, the experience of reading will itself be altered. We can anticipate a decline in reflection, the willingness to work hard to understand a point of view, and perhaps the loss of the ability to appreciate the value of ideas.” In turn, he believes this will mean the decline of democracy and “the rise of something else.” A doomsday warning to be sure and one that leaves open the matter of what this “something else” will be, better or worse, or anything at all.

4.06.2009

The Physicality of Books



Stephen Carter, novelist (The Emperor of Ocean Park) and Professor of Law at Yale, asks “Where’s the Bailout for Publishing?” in the March 21st The Daily Beast. His question is not entirely facetious. In fact, he is deadly serious and says books are critical to the future of American life, surely just as crucial as some of the current beneficiaries of those monstrous bailout sums. He writes:

Books are essential to democracy. Not literacy, although literacy is important. Not reading, although reading is wonderful. But books themselves, the actual physical volumes on the shelves of libraries and stores and homes, send a message through their very existence. In a world in which most things seem ephemeral, books imply permanence: that there exist ideas and thoughts of sufficient weight that they are worth preserving in a physical form that is expensive to produce and takes up space. And a book, once out there, cannot be recalled. The author who changes his mind cannot just take down the page.”

Against the emerging background of the digital revolution, Carter is making an important point. He is suggesting that the sheer physicality of a book is crucial, that books are not simply words. In contrast, to an e-book, a printed book has a place on the shelf, the library shelf or the one in your home, a place that is different in several respects from the virtual place it has in cyberspace.

All of us are aware that the places where books can be felt and touched are rapidly diminishing. Bookstores, especially the small independent ones, are closing at a rate that is distressing to anyone who cares deeply about the pleasures they bring. The same is true for the public libraries that are shutting down and those within our universities and colleges that are being transformed from places to read and peruse books to banks of radiating computer stations. And then there are the book publishers themselves, some of which are closing up shop, while others are drastically cutting back on the number of books they publish. Carter is right: the book world needs a bailout stimulus that is every bit as deserving as the banking, insurance, or automotive sector. He writes:

“In a library, you can stand beside the shelf and run your finger along the spines. You can feel the book-ness of what has been written. It is a very unsophisticated reader indeed who conceptualizes the library principally as a place to obtain information. A library is a shrine to the book. When we eliminate the name “library,” as some universities and communities have done, creating such vulgarities as “information resource centers,” we are implicitly, denigrating the very object that the library is intended to preserve. The book, we are saying, is not important, only its information content matters.”

Carter argues this is a serious mistake, that a book is more than the words on its pages. Because it is a physical object and takes up space on a shelf, we can run our hand over it, pick it up, explore its pages and be surprised by what we find. And we can do the same with all the others placed nearby. By saying this he is clearly stating that there is an important difference between the book as a physical object and the one it becomes in electronic form. His argument here is more complex than the matter of a bailout or physicality of the book so will be reserved for another day.

4.04.2009

Weekend Links

Enjoy Video of Reunions, a John Cheever Short Story
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Na5zv7sj7ME

A Critique of the Current Economic Plan
http://www.commondreams.org/view/2009/03/27-1

Intelligence and How to Get It
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/29/books/review/Holt-t.html?8bu&emc=bua2

Bothered By Google’s Street View?
http://www.lrb.co.uk/v31/n07/lanc01_.html?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=3107

Britannica Online Versus Wikipedia
http://www.boston.com/business/technology/articles/2009/03/31/enter_britannica/?page=full

There’s Something About a Library

http://curiousexpeditions.org/?p=78

4.03.2009

We Are What Our Situations Hand Us

I know what it is like to walk the streets of a foreign city as Tatianna did in the Book of Clouds, the novel I discussed yesterday. But city was not Berlin and there were no abandoned buildings, nor were the streets empty and my mood was not the least bit somber or melancholy.

I have been traveling to Florence, Italy during many of the past few years where I rent an apartment for a month and spend my days meandering about some of the world’s most beautiful streets. I walk in solitude as Tatianna did and while my silent apartment also lies in wait, I never dread returning to it or being in Florence alone. Here are a few of my impressions of those years. Since I have no novelistic talent, they are in the form of brief fragments of my experiences.

The Past
I am engulfed by history in Florence. Something extraordinary happened here during the Renaissance. How did it happen? Leonardo, Michelangelo, Galileo, Brunelleschi, Machiavelli, the Medicis—all working together, sometimes across the street from one another.

Streets
The streets are narrow and irregular and it is sometimes difficult to find a place to walk. To pass another person you often have to step off into the roadway. It is like Robin Hood and Friar Tuck. A sense of intimacy is created, but it is sometimes dangerous as the cars go whizzing by.

Buildings
Many of the buildings date from the Renaissance and before. Some are beautiful palazzos or civic buildings, meticulously preserved and thoroughly modernized within. Others are still quite shabby and in need of repair. At first, I am put off by this. But then I am actually back in time, several hundred years. Wandering about the commune then, not now. In the country, the homes and public buildings are painted the most delightful shades of orange, yellow and pink. There are no gray buildings in Tuscany.

Neighborhoods
On every street there are many small shops, each selling only a few items. The pattern is repeated in the next block, as well as on the next street over. So everything you need—bread, fruit and vegetables, a book, hardware, an espresso—is close to where you live. You go from place to place gathering the things you need. And along the way, you exchange a few words with the people you know—that is, if they are not already chatting with someone else.

Piazza
In every town there is a central square and many smaller ones. They vibrate with talk and music and the activity of the surrounding banks, restaurants, bookshops, churches, artisans and whoever else is fortunate enough to be there. The piazza is the heart of an Italian town and brings a sense of community to those who live there. It is the place to go and to be seen. For many it is their “Third Place.”

The War
Standing on the banks of the Arno one night I was staring at the Ponte Vecchio. I wondered how that bridge managed to survive the war when all the others, up and down the river, had been destroyed. What led the German general, a man who perhaps cherished his Goethe, to spare that bridge? How little I know of what the war in Italy was like. How young and far away I was at the time. Yet that vague and remote experience, more than 50 years ago, has a place somewhere in the deep recesses of my mind. It was doing its work that night as I was gazing out over the Arno at the Ponte Vecchio.

Bar Pasticceria Curatone
During lunch one day at the Bar Pasticceria Curatone, I observed a riotous display of friendship and camaraderie. A middle-aged man, sitting by my table on the terrace was engaged in an animated conversation with the Bar's owner. Soon some old friends happened by and when they saw him, each one, in turn, burst forth with joy, followed by spirited conversation. In time, others passed by who also recognized one or more of the assembled group. Jump for joy, long embraces, happy smiles, long tales of where have you been? What have you been up to? How wonderful you look. Oh, let me show you the pictures of my baby. As if that wasn't enough, soon after that, I sat astonished as I observed a similar scene unfold at another table.

The Rain
Early this morning the rain began falling on the terra cotta roof outside my window. I could hear the water splashing against the tiles. But now the rain has stopped and the terra cotta tiles are once again dry. When they are wet, they all look the same—dark and wet. Now their colors are apparent, each one a slightly different orange than the other, partly from the dirt or moss or the natural differences between them.

Scale
Where did we go wrong? Where did we go wrong in America? I think it is the scale of things. You see that so clearly here in Florence, where everything is so much smaller than in the USA. The buildings are only a few stories high, at most. The stores are often nothing more than living room size. They sell only a few products and are ubiquitous throughout the commune. It is interesting that Florence has always been known as the commune, the community. It is really a community of small neighborhoods. The streets are very narrow. There are no broad highways crisscrossing Florence. I think that has made an enormous difference. The ancient cities were not designed for anything like the automobile. At times there is simply not enough room on the street for both car and pedestrian. Indeed, there is often a little fight for survival when the two meet. In a word, this city was designed to be lived in by human beings. I don't know who the cities in our country were designed for.

4.02.2009

Urban Alienation

I read the Book of Clouds by Chloe Aridjis on the basis of a short review by Wendy Lesser in the Sunday Times Book Review (March 15, 2009). I was intrigued by the tale of Aridjis first novel and perhaps by her background as well—a young Mexican American Jewish women with a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature who has lived a nomadic life in Holland, Mexico City, Switzerland, New York and now Berlin. In an interview about her life and work Aridjis says she “…to this day I can't imagine staying in the same place for more than two consecutive months without a small break in between.”

The Book of Clouds unfolds the somber, melancholy days of a young woman adrift in Berlin. It is not entirely clear why Tatianna, the narrator, has fled her family in Mexico City where her parents run a Jewish delicatessen, nor does she ever explain why she settled, if only briefly, in Berlin. She lives in solitude, distancing herself from anyone including the city’s grim past. She gets by with low paying jobs, lives in an heated apartment, and spends much of her time wandering the streets of Berlin with their abandoned buildings and graffiti cluttered walls.

“There’s solitude and then there’s loneliness. Monday through Saturday were marked by solitude but on Sundays that solitude hardened into something else.”

Eventually she gets a more stable job transcribing the notes of an aging German-Jewish historian—“this employer of mine who lived with one foot in the past and one in the present, mourning all that could have been instead of going out and seeing all that had become.”

Through the historian she meets a meteorologist who is studying the clouds and finds in their forever shifting patterns a way to interpret the grim reality of his world.

“…the message they [clouds] offer: all structures are collapsible. Just look at their own existence, condemned to rootlessness and fragmentation. Each cloud faces death through loss of form, drifting towards its death, some faster than others, destined to self-destruct before it reaches the other end of the horizon. After living in the times I’ve lived in, you create your own concept of flux. Without sounding too simplistic, meteorology helped me understand--and maybe even cope with recent history, before and after nineteen-eighty nine.”

While Aridjis lived in Berlin for five years, Tatianna in the novel leaves after only half a year. During that time she learns more about the city, its past, and the experience of living a solitary life of displacement and exile. As Aridjis notes in an interview, the Books of Clouds represents one person’s confrontation with urban exile, an experience that is not confined to Berlin, of course.

She learns that the past is always with us and nothing ever vanishes, regardless of how ugly and horrible it was. Tatianna concludes “…nothing can truly be rubbed away or blotted out, and how the more you try to rub something away the darker it becomes.”

As she sets about leaving, she begins to see it more clearly, at least from another viewpoint, now from the past, rather than the somber present. “The simplest of actions, actions you have repeated one hundred, maybe a thousand, times, swell in significance since each time may now be the last…”

At the end she returns to the metaphor of the clouds and concludes with what I take to be the book’s other theme and the reason for its title: “…there was little difference between clouds and shadows and other phenomena given shape by the human imagination.”

At first I was not greatly moved by novel, but it grew on me and I came to look forward to getting back to it. Gradually, I came to better understand what Chloe Aridjis was expressing in her narrative. She said it well and briefly and I learned from it, both about Berlin where I was for about a week recently and the experience she was recounting.

4.01.2009

On Torture

In the March 30th issue of the New Yorker Atul Gawande has written a disturbing article about the effects of extreme sensory deprivation or what is more commonly known as solitary confinement. The issue looms large in current discussions of torture, as well as reform of the prison system in this country.

When I was doing undergraduate work in psychology, the research on sensory deprivation was already well known. The work of Harry Harlow on isolating infant monkeys (Gawande notes they “usually go into a state of emotional shock, characterized by…autistic self clutching and rocking.”) had been published, as had the earlier work of John Lily on isolating individuals in salt-water tanks without light or sound. It was clear from the research that the effects of prolonged periods of isolation caused extreme anxiety, hallucinations, anti-social behavior, and depression.

Gawande asks: “If prolonged isolation is—as research and experience have confirmed for decades—so objectively horrifying, so intrinsically cruel, how did we end up with a prison system that may subject more of our own citizens to it than any other country in history?”

He describes the cases of prisoners who have spent several years in isolation, as well as the experiences of hostages, such as the journalist Terry Anderson and the war prisoner John McCain, all of whom described their experience of total isolation as nothing less than extreme torture.

My main interest in this article is not so much the profound effects of such an experience, but rather the efforts to provide an alternative form of treatment for potentially dangerous prisoners. Gawande describes an approach adopted in Great Britain designed to prevent “prison violence rather than on delivering an ever more brutal series of punishments for it.” The program assumes that violence within a prison setting is largely a function of the conditions of incarceration.

Some of the conditions introduced in this program include: (1) work opportunities, educational programs and training in social skills, (2) mental-health treatment programs, (3) more social contacts—visits, phone calls, joint meals, (4) a procedure for airing grievances, etc.

According to Gawande: “The use of long-term isolation in England is now negligible. In all of England, there are now fewer prisoners in extreme custody than there are in the state of Maine.” However, he says nothing about the other effects of the program—the frequency of prison violence, the overall behavior of the inmates, the likelihood of early parole or anything else about the effects of the work or educational programs, or the recidivism rate, if any, of the prisoners released from the prison.

We do know, however, from other studies that prisoners who have been subject to solitary confinement without other support programs have an extremely high rate of recidivism. Other studies have indicated that the introduction of so-called “supermax” prisons (there are now well over sixty in this country) where solitary confinement is widely practiced does not reduce the levels of inmate violence.

According to Gawande efforts in the United States to adopt a similar program in place of long-term isolation and other punitive approaches “went nowhere, of course. Whatever the evidence in its favor, people simply did not believe in the treatment.” He says any elected official or prison commissioner in this country who advocates the abolition of solitary confinement would be committing political suicide.

Has the public mood change of late? We do know that there has been a reversal in the stated government policy concerning torturing captured “terrorists.” Perhaps that will eventually generalize to the prison system itself.

Near the end of his analysis, Gawande concludes: “The United States now has five per cent of the world’s population, twenty-five per cent of its prisoners, and probably the vast majority of prisoners who are in long-term solitary confinement.” It is safe to say that this type of punishment is doing nothing to reduce the overall level of violence within or outside of the prison system.