6.30.2009

Questions in Fiction

Asking questions is one of those mundane, everyday activities that characterize the way we speak and write. Some individuals ask a great many questions, while others ask one or two and more commonly none at all. I sense that questioning as a mode of conversation, indeed, as a way of thinking, may be a central personality dimension.

My hunch is that it is strongly associated with a philosophical turn of mind, a general skepticism about most beliefs and assertions, at least, a continuing effort to look more deeply into the claims of others whether they are expressed in conversation or on the printed page.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the role of asking questions in fiction. I first began to realize that authors vary widely in their use of questions in reading Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier. In reading Night Train to Lisbon I was not deliberately looking for passages that posed questions. It was only after finishing the book and began to look closely at those I had recorded that I realized how many were framed this way.

In fact, of the 120 passages I recorded from the book, a number that may be the most in my reading history by a sizable margin, 47 (40%) included at least one question. I began to wonder if questioning also played a similar role in the passages I recorded from other books that meant a lot to me.

I copied 46 passages from Ian McEwan’s Saturday, a book I enjoyed every bit as much as Night Train to Lisbon but of these quotations, only 15% included at least one question. Similarly, I recorded 47 passages in Philip Roth’s Exist Ghost and of these only 15% included a question. And of the 83 passages I recorded in Eliot Perlman’s Seven Types of Ambiguity, just 8% included a question.

It is clear from this small sample that questioning is not a critical feature of the novels I like most. I may enjoy that style of writing and tend to think that way myself, but it probably plays little if any role in my reading preferences. Henry Perowne, the central character in Ian McEwan’s Saturday is depicted as a deeply reflective man who spends a good part of that day at least, wondering about a wide range of topics. But his reflections are rarely formulated as questions.

Many of the questions in Night Train to Lisbon are also posed for rhetorical effect rather than a direct answer. That is, the answer is simply implied by the question. Prado, the Portuguese physician-author, asks:

Why hadn’t there been anybody before in his life who understood him so fast and so easily?

Is it so that everything we do is done out of fear of loneliness?...Why else do we hold on to all these broken marriages, false friendships, boring birthday parties?

We humans: what do we know of one another?


Clearly he implies that we know very little. Still he wants the reader to consider the issue and give some thought to the implications of the implied answer. It is a style of writing that encourages an internal dialogue for any reader who takes the text seriously.

Posing questions of almost any kind, regardless of their function, usually sets me off in another direction as my mind wanders off the page. Above all, I read more actively as I consider the questions or make all those associations it engenders from a lifetime of experience. In a way, I join with the author who, with his questions, invites me to join with him in telling his tale. It is a reading experience at its best

6.29.2009

On the Move

This is the season to travel, perhaps not so far this year, but still somewhere if you can afford it. Long ago Blaise Pascal wrote, “The sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.” And yet most of us leave our room at this time of the year to travel hither and yon. But why? The current issue of Lapham’s Quarterly has devoted its current issue to the subject of travel and sometimes to this question.

The issue consists of a series of excerpts from contributors as varied as Herodotus, Basho, Melville, Dorothy Parker, etc. It is a little confusing to skip from one excerpt to another but enough are interesting to make it worthwhile and, even better, on most pages there is a painting, a map, a drawing, a box with historical facts, or a photograph.

In reading the issue, I made note of some of the quotations sprinkled throughout the text and, along with some of my own, I have selected a few to post.

On Going
What an odd thing tourism is. You fly off to a strange land, eager abandoning all the comforts of home, and then expend vast quantities of time and money in a largely futile attempt to recapture the comforts that you wouldn’t have lost if you hadn’t left home in the first place. Bill Bryson

The wise traveler travels only in imagination. W. Somerset Maugham

Traveling is the ruin of all happiness! There’s no looking at a building here after seeing Italy. Francis Burney

Purpose
The soul of a journey is liberty, perfect liberty, to think, feel, do just as one pleases. We go on a journey chiefly to be free of all impediments and of all inconveniences—to leave ourselves behind, much more to get rid of others. William Hazlitt

Out of touch was where I wanted to be. The wish to disappear sends many travelers away. The greatest justification for travel is not self-improvement but rather performing a vanishing act, disappearing without a trace. Paul Theroux

One’s destination is never a place but a new ways of seeing things. Henry Miller

Getting There

Thanks to the interstate highway system, it is now possible to travel from coast to coast without seeing anything. Charles Kuralt

More and more I like to take a train. I understand why the French prefer it to automobiling—it is so much more sociable, and of course these days so much more of an adventure, and the irregularity of its regularity is fascinating. Gertrude Stein

Journeys are the midwives of thought. Few places are more conducive to internal conversations than moving planes, ships, or trains. Alain de Botton

Effects

The farther one goes
The less one knows. Lao Tzu

And see all the sights from pole to pole,
And glance, and nod, and bustle by;
And never once possess our soul
Before we die. Matthew Arnold

Journeys, like artists, are born and not made. A thousand differing circumstances contribute to them, few of them willed or determined by the will—whatever we may think. Lawrence Durrell

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time. T. S. Eliot

6.27.2009

Weekend Links

Quiet Time?
http://www.newyorker.com/humor/2009/06/01/090601sh_shouts_borowitz

Imaginative Writer
http://papercuts.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/06/19/stray-questions-for-elina-hirvonen

On Daydreaming
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124535297048828601.html

Too Complex?
http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2009/06/14/too_complex_to_exist/?page=full

Place Matters in Fiction
http://www.chicagotribune.com/features/lifestyle/chi-0621-lit-life-cj-mainjun21,0,6936712.column?track=rss

Literary Threesomes
http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/jun/23/ewan-morrison-menage-trois

6.26.2009

Motorcycles and Heidegger

Idols, a short story by Tim Gautreaux in the current issue of The New Yorker, is about a man who works at repairing and restoring old typewriters. It isn’t the most impressive or busiest of current professions.

A few pages later Kelefa Sanneh reviews Matthew Crawford’s first book, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work. After reading Sanneh’s review, repairing old typewriters didn’t seem like such a menial activity after all.

Crawford’s book is written in the tradition of Robert Pirsig’s almost classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance that George Steiner, also writing in The New Yorker, compared to Moby Dick. Crawford writes about the “soul destroying consequences of our new work habit—endless hours spent at flexible jobs, performing abstract tasks on computer screens.” If you’ve ever held a job like that, you’ll know full well the experience Crawford describes. I did once and it was sheer misery.

Crawford argues for the return of old fashioned hard work, work where the outcome is clear and where success is evident. When you work at repairing a typewriter, you know with certainty when it is fixed. His book is also an argument that localism can help cure our spiritual and economic woes.

Sanneh says that Crawford believes that fixing motorcycles is a form of philosophical investigation that helps him understand Heidegger’s theory of skillful coping. The logic of this relationship eludes me. Nevertheless, I do understand Sanneh when he says Crawford believes “a cluster of cultural prejudices have steered many potential tradesmen into college, and then toward stultifying office jobs, which provide less satisfactory and less security than skilled manual labor, and sometimes less money.”

Indeed, Crawford believes that those who are trained in skilled labor, such as a mechanic, a plumber, an electrician, a carpenter, offers a person “a place in society” as well as an “economically viable” job that isn’t going to evaporate in the next recession or moved overseas in the next wave of global buyouts. It also guarantees a job just about anywhere you might wish to live.

That was never true of university teaching. If I wanted to move Palo Alto, I needed to know the university there had an opening in my field and that I had a good chance of ranking number one in its highly competitive selection process. Plumbers and electricians can move to Palo Alto and find plenty of work without giving the matter a second thought.

Crawford’s manifesto for skilled manual labor and the return of craft originates in his first hand experience maintaining motorcycles. He claims repairing motorcycles fills him with a “sense of agency and competence.” None of can readily occur in big corporations that Crawford claims do little else but elicit boredom and engage employees in mindless tasks or routine activities that one can hardly take any degree of pride in.

Here I am reminded of the argument Malcolm Gladwell made in Outliers in accounting for the success of the cultures formed in the rice paddies of Asia. Those endless hours in the hot sun, planting and weeding in a rice paddy brought forth a product that gave those in the fields a sense of accomplishment under conditions of considerable uncertainty and poverty.

Sanneh concludes his review of Shopcraft as Soulcraft with this note: “Crawford wants his readers to become better, happier, more productive workers. Who could argue with that?”

6.25.2009

Reading In Secret

The extraordinary events occurring in Iran today have taken me back to a remarkable novel I read about an equally turbulent period there during the late 90’s--Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books.

Every now and then a book nearly takes command of my life, when my day is measured only by the time remaining before I can get back to it. Nafisi’s memoir is one of them. Not long after I began reading it, I went out of town for a few days to work on a project that was as remotely associated with literature as Newtonian physics. When I left, I was halfway through Reading Lolita in Tehran.

The book brought alive for me the meaning of literature for those who could only read and discuss it in hiding. Within an hour after returning home, I took up the book once again. A feeling of relief swept over me, an emotion I often feel in getting back to literature.

I am not entirely sure what gives rise to this feeling. All I know is that when I am reading literature as fine as Nafisi’s work I fall into a mood, one of rumination, sometimes moody, sometimes elated, that makes the experience such an imperative. It is an effect not unlike the one Jonathan Franzen described in reading Alice Munro.

Reading Munro puts me in that state of quiet reflection in which I think about my own life: about the decisions I’ve made, the things I’ve done and haven’t done, the kind of person I am, the prospect of death.

Nafasi’s novel describes the experiences of a group of her students who met to discuss the books they were reading when it was forbidden to read Western literature in Iran. They read the works of Nabokov, James, Jane Austen and Fitzgerald’s Gatsby. They met in secret when “…all the normal acts of life had become small acts of rebellion and political insubordination…”

The book is also about the unexpected parallels they found between the novels they read and the life they were forced to lead under the mullahs—not wearing the veil or wearing it improperly, not speaking out in public against the government, and “for studying decadent Western texts and for embracing the ambiguities and conundrums of fiction” as Michiko Kakutani puts it in her Times review.

The group tended to interpret each of the works they read against this background. So, for example, “The desperate truth of Lolita’s story is not the rape of a twelve year old by a dirty old man but the confiscation of one’s individual life by another.”

The meetings became a refuge for the women. The novels they read began to transform their life, leading them to those truths that one often finds in fiction. Nafisi writes, “If I turned towards books, it was because they were the only sanctuary I knew, one I needed in order to survive, to protect some aspect of myself that was no in constant retreat.”

Through their readings and discussions, Nafisi and her students discovered themselves and the larger world that confronted them. “Fiction was not a panacea, but it did offer us a critical way of appraising and grasping the world—not just our world but that other world that had become the object of our desires.”

And elsewhere, “Not only did the most ordinary activities gain a new luminosity in the light of our secret, but everyday life sometimes took on the quality of make-believe or fiction. We had to reveal aspects of ourselves to one another that we didn’t even know existed.”

In reading Lolita in Tehran, I too came to share the joy of reading fiction that those in the group experienced. And in a way I leaned just as much about each of the novels they read, most of which I was only dimly aware of. “You don’t read Gatsby to learn whether adultery is good or bad but to learn about how complicated issues such as adultery and fidelity and marriage are.”

Nafisi’s novel also reinforced my view that the best fiction always forces us to question our fundamental beliefs. Questioning traditions and ideologies and doing so in secret was for these women also the purest form of insubordination. Given the way events are currently unfolding in Iran, I suspect we are likely to learn about more Iranian groups of underground readers in the near future.

6.24.2009

Fifteen Notable Books

An amusing game is currently circulating around the literary blogs. It was initiated by David Meyers at A Commonplace Blog who laid out its rules: “Name the fifteen books that have most influenced your thinking, that you have found yourself referring to most often in reflection, speech, and writing.”

Putting the matter this way is different than asking for your favorite book or one that has transformed your life. Instead you are asked to name a book, fifteen to be exact, that have influenced the way you write, talk and think. In my view, that’s a very powerful effect that, while it may not have turned your life around, has clearly left its mark.

To date there have been only three readers who have contributed a fifteen book list. Obviously you need to have read a great many fine books to put forward such a list, to say nothing of remembering the title and author of each one. The dilemma has been well expressed by Zbigniew Herbert in this excerpt from his poem A Life:

Someone recommended a classic work—as he said
it changed his life and the lives of million of others
I read it—I didn’t change—I’m ashamed to admit
for the life of me I don’t remember the classic’s name.

I will only mention the first five selections of each of the contributors. The rules of the game are to identify those that first came to mind and not spend too much time thinking about it. Meyers, who first proposed the game, named Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady, Saul Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet and Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. The remaining 10 are listed on his blog.

Patrick Kurp had no trouble coming up with his list, claiming it took him less than 7 minutes to write and then edit the collection. The first five are Guy Davenport’s The Geography of the Imagination, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, A. J. Liebling’s, Normandy Revisited, and Joseph Mitchell’s The Bottom of the Harbor. The remaining ten on Kurp’s list can be found on his blog, Anecdotal Evidence.

A blog by the name Underbelly was the last participate so far. The first 5 volumes on this list were Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Betram Wolfe’s Three Who Made a Revolution, James Boswell’s Life of Johnson and Tolstoy’s War and Peace. The next ten are shown on Underbelley.

Of the forty-five books mentioned there isn’t a single one common to each of the three lists, although Boswell’s Life of Johnson appeared on two. And with the exception Boswell, no author appeared more than once in the three lists—not Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Proust, or Joyce. Once again this attests to the remarkable subjectivity of the reading experience and the way in which we bring our own perception and emotional history to the books we read.

In the Guardian last week, Molly Flatt offered a current testimonial to the power of literature. She points out that “religious texts are prime examples of how stories have transformed people and societies in a very real way…” She notes that Shakespeare and Petrarch dramatically shaped the evolution of our language.

This reminded me of a remark Ian McEwan wrote in a tribute to Saul Bellow: “Writers we admire and re-read are absorbed into the fine print of our consciousness, into the white noise of our thoughts and in this sense, they can never die.”

And Flatt concludes her article with a personal account: “I'm convinced that novels change me all the time. After reading Jon McGregor's If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things I made an effort – which admittedly lapsed after a few days – to live in the present and notice the little stuff. After reading Blood Diamond I joined Amnesty International. After reading Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond Chronicles at the age of 15, I doomed my love life for years by measuring every potential date against a borderline genius, angelic-voiced, blond-haired 16th-century aristocrat. And don't tell me there isn't a whole generation out there campaigning to save the forests because they adored The Faraway Tree.”

She ends with a question that I too would like to pose: “So – be it in a serious or frivolous way, for good or for bad – what was the last story that really changed you?”

6.23.2009

The Parks of Paris


In the Guardian last weekend William Boyd wrote about the parks in London and the inspiration they have been for novelists. In Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, Peter Walsh goes for a walk in Regent’s Park after visiting Clarissa Dalloway who had earlier that day been there herself on the way to collect the flowers for the party she gave that night. In Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair, several key events take place in Clapham Common, a park not far from where he had lived one year.

Boyd has a strange definition of parks. Namely, there must be tall trees that must give the impression of random planting. An avenue here and there is OK and the ground must be undulating in a significant way and you mustn’t be able to see all the sides of the park at once. And finally you must have a gated entrance. All these “musts.” Consider what this means for Paris: on this definition Les Tuileries isn’t a park, nor is the Parc Monceau or the Luxembourg Gardens for that matter. Isn’t this absurd?

In reading Boyd’s account of the parks in London and the many others he would like to visit, I was reminded what the parks of Paris came to mean to me one summer several years ago. After being there awhile, I thought the romance of Paris had begun to fade. Maybe it had all been an illusion in the first place, one fostered by all those storytellers who have written so beautifully of love in Paris and the beauty of the place

But as I walked about the city that summer, I wondered what had happened. It was crowded. And noisy. In some places dirty. Even a bit shabby. With one exception--the parks. The parks of Paris brought me back to the romance of the city. And they were everywhere, on almost every block and corner.

They never looked lovelier. Many with well-tended flower-beds in full bloom. Lawns that had been freshly mowed. Trees that had been carefully trimmed. Each park appeared perfectly manicured and yet I never saw a gardener at work. I kept wondering who were these people who took such good care of the parks? How were they paid? Where did the funds come from to maintain these jewels? It surely cost a fortune to do that.

So in its parks, I saw a different Paris. Or more exactly, the old Paris. Children playing. Lovers picnicking. Others just out for a stroll. Or a little nap. Then there are the benches and chairs found in every Parisian park. Not just one or two. But many, spread out along the open paths. There are no chains bolting them to the ground in Paris.

And more often than not they were occupied by individuals who were quietly reading, oblivious to the passing scene. Young and old. Each one reading something. It was wonderful. The flowers, the children and people reading.

In City of Books Don Bell writes, “Perhaps no city in the world rivals Paris for its voluptuous literary pleasures.....In warm months parks become outdoor libraries. Walk through delightful Parc Monceau on a fair day, for instance, and on virtually every bench you will likely see some happy-looking citizen, book in hand, mind faraway in an enchanted otherworld.”

I have a feeling Parisians don’t spend much time in their apartments on the hot, sultry days of summer. In most cases, their apartments are probably not very inviting then anyway. Little or no sun. No chirping birds. No children sailing their little boats on the lake. How much nicer to take a book and head for their neighborhood park. Coming off my background in social research, I thought how interesting it would be to interview some Parisians—to ask them what the park meant to them? How often they visited their park? Did they have a favorite?

I wanted capture of the psychological meaning for Parisians of being in the small neighborhood parks, as well as the larger, better known ones. I wanted to know if the parks represent a Third Place in the sense that Ray Oldenburg uses the term in The Great Good Place.

I was reminded of all this by Boyd’s literary tour of these urban oases that he describes as “a refuge for lovers, loners, children and outcasts—parks provide the settings for some of our most innocent and illicit encounters. No wonder they are such an inspiration for novelists.”

A few years ago the New York Times ran a lengthy article on the numerous, no less beautiful hidden gardens of Paris, places I had never heard of or seen that are spread throughout the city. Perhaps one day I will be able to return to Paris to continue my encounters with those who go there to read or admire the lovely flowers.

6.22.2009

The Cost Conundrum

As the debate about health care reform moves into its decisive and most contentious phase, Atul Gawande has once again joined the fray in the June 1st issue of The New Yorker. In this article he reports on the costs of medical care in McAllen, Texas, an obscure town on the south-west border of the state that claims to be the Square Dance Capital of the World. Why McAllen?

According to Gawande, McAllen is one of the most expensive health-care markets in the country. He says in 2006 Medicare spent fifteen thousand dollars per enrollee there, almost twice the national average. Gawande wants to know why. Step by step he considers each of the likely reasons.

He notes that the people who live in McAllen are not healthy and with its high poverty rate “has an incidence of heavy drinking, sixty percent higher than the national average. And the Tex-Mex diet has contributed to a thirty-eight percent obesity rate.”

Still he says that the incidence of cardiovascular disease there is actually lower than the national average and that the health statistics in nearby El Paso County are “just as bad as in McAllen, yet Medicare expenditures were half as much as in McAllen, so an unhealthy population couldn’t be the reason that McAllen’s health care costs are so high.”

Further, after visiting most of the hospitals in the area, Gawande concludes there’s no evidence the treatments and technology in McAllen are superior (and therefore more costly) than those found at some of the best medical centers in the country, e.g., Harvard, Stanford and the Mayo Clinic.

So the service is no better, physician malpractice insurance isn’t any higher, and McAllen is no more litigious than anywhere else in the country. A surgeon finally confessed, “We all know…There is overutilization here, pure and simple. Doctors, he said, were racking up charges with extra tests, services and procedures.”

Gawande writes, “Compared with patients in El Paso and nationwide, patients in McAllen got more of pretty much everything—more diagnostic testing, more hospital treatment, more surgery, more home care…critically ill Medicare patients received almost fifty percent more specialist visits in McAllen than in El Paso…twenty percent more abdominal ultrasounds, thirty percent more bone density studies, sixty per cent more stress tests with echocardiography…The primary cause of McAllen’s extreme was, very simply, the across-the-board overuse of medicine.”

In spite of this, the patients in such high spending areas do “no better than other patients, whether this is measured in terms of survival, their ability to function, or satisfaction with the care they received. If anything they seemed to do worse.” They simply do not get what they need, such as low cost preventive services, flu and pneumonia vaccines, etc.

In addition to over utilization of costly medical technology, the physicians in this area of the country have come to view their practice as primarily a business, as a revenue stream. Gawande writes, “They instruct their secretary to have patients who call with follow-up questions to schedule an appointment, because insurers don’t pay for phone calls, only office visits. They consider providing Botox injections for cash. They take a Doppler ultrasound course, buy a machine, and start doing their patient’s scans themselves, so that the insurance payments go to them rather than to the hospital. They figure out ways to increase their high-margin work and decrease their low-margin work.”

Taken together with the over-utilization of medical services, the medicine-as-business mindset has led to the extraordinary per person cost of medical care in this community, while at the same time, doing little if anything to improve patient health.

To get a handle on these costs, Gawande urges the expansion of “accountable care organizations in which doctors collaborate to increase prevention and the quality of care while discouraging overtreatment, undertreatment, and sheer profiteering.”

The President has said that the biggest threat to our nation’s economic future is the “skyrocketing” cost of medical services. Gawande makes it abundantly clear that we can avoid this threat by delivering better health care, avoiding unnecessary medical tests, and taking measures to blunt excessive financial incentives. Doing all this is likely to reduce significantly the “skyrocketing” costs of medical services in this country without negatively affecting the quality of patient care.

6.20.2009

Weekend Links



Reading Russian Literature
http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2009/06/what-are-you-reading-david-denby.html

Social Contagion
http://scienceblogs.com/cortex/2009/06/social_contagions.php

Power of the Pen
http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2009/jun/12/fiction-healthmindandbody

Let Writers Report the News
http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2009/06/haaretz-gets-creative.html

Bookalholism
http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2009/jun/10/promoting-bookaholism

Need a Dictionary?
http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2009/06/need-a-dictionary-with-that.html

6.19.2009

Grab Your Dream

Each year the Times publishes snippets of some of the most interesting commencement speeches of the year. Earlier I wrote about the provocative commencement remarks of David Foster Wallace and Ann Patchett, both later published in their entirety as slim volumes.

It seems that this year most orators spoke about the bleak economic conditions that would greet graduates outside the campus. President Obama told Notre Dame graduates that they needed to “find a path back to prosperity.” Even Bud Selig, the commissioner of Major League Baseball, acknowledged “We are living in the most difficult economic environment since the Great Depression.” None of this was the sort of message one normally expects to hear in a commencement address.

The actress Laura Linney had a more traditional message for the graduates of The Julliard School. “Remember that no matter which art you practice, there is no more valuable skill than the ability to listen carefully. Especially when you listen to the music, or listen to the text, listen!”

So too did Larry Page, the co-founder of Google, who spoke to the graduates of the University of Michigan. “I had one of those dreams when I was 23. I suddenly woke up, I was just thinking, What if we download the whole Web and just keep the links? And I grabbed a pen and started writing. Sometimes it is important to wake up and stop dreaming….When a really great dream shows up, grab it.”

The historian David McCullough spoke about the importance of teachers to the graduates of the University of Oklahoma. “There is no such thing as a self-made man or woman…We are all, as were those in whose footsteps we follow, shaped by the influence and examples of countless others—parents, grandparents, friends, rivals. And by those who wrote the music that moves us to our souls, those whose performance on state or on the playing field took our breaths away, those who wrote the great charters which are the bedrock of our system of self-government. And so many who, to our benefit struggled and suffered through times of trouble and grave uncertainty. And by teachers…I want to stress as emphatically as I can the immeasurable importance of teachers.”

To the graduates of the School of Journalism at UC, Berkeley, Barbara Ehrenreich said, “You are going to be trying to carve out a career in the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. You are, furthermore, going to be trying to do so within what appears to be a dying industry…Welcome to the American working class.”

I welcomed the timely remarks of Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, to the graduates of Oberlin College: “Dissent will be, and should be, part of your lives. This country was born of dissent (the Revolutionary War), defined by it (the Civil War) and changed profoundly by it. The labor, suffrage and civil rights movements as well as the anti-Vietnam protests all come to mind. Dissent is as America as cherry pie.”

Finally, there was even a speaker who put in a word for literature. It was the playwright John Patrick Shanley who delivered the commencement address at the College of Mount St. Vincent. “…when you leave here today, you may go through a period of unemployment. My suggestion is this: Enjoy the unemployment. Have a second cup of coffee. Go to the park. Read Walt Whitman. Walt Whitman loved being unemployed. I don’t believe he ever did a day’s work in his life. As you may know, he was a poet. If a lot of time goes by and you continue to be unemployed, you may want to consider announcing to all appropriate parties that you have become a poet.”

6.18.2009

A Big Mistake?

Roni Rabin has written an important article in the New York Times (June 16, 2009) about the purported relationship between moderate alcohol consumption and a person’s overall health. She wonders if moderate drinking is really good for you. Given the countless studies that have demonstrated its benefits, how can anyone seriously entertain this question anymore?

Well, Rabin does. She says what if it’s all a big mistake? “For some scientists, the question will not go away. No study, these critics say, has ever proved a causal relationship between moderate drinking and lower risk of death—only that the two often go together.”

This is the reason I find her article so important. It gets to the nub of the many studies reported in the media about the association between a behavior, drug, or food product and another physiological or behavioral measure. For example, it is sometimes claimed that daily dose of aspirin decreases the risk of a heart attack. Or that excessive coffee consumption decreases bone mineral density and increases the risk of osteoporosis. And that eating a goodly number of fruits and vegetables decreases the risk of lung disease. The list of such claims seems limitless.

But it is essential to remember the nature of the evidence upon which they are made. Almost all are derived from correlational data in which one variable is found to go together with another with varying degrees of probability. However, it is impossible to claim a causal relationship with such data. We have no idea, for example, if the relationship is due to any number of third variables can account for the relationship.

Consider, for example, the claim that moderate alcohol consumption may promote cardiovascular health and reduce the risk of diabetes and dementia. Could it be that the moderate drinkers differ from those who abstain? Rabin suggests, “It may be that moderate drinking is just something healthy people tend to do, not something that makes people healthy.”

She quotes Kaye Middleton Fillmore, a sociologist from the University of California Medical School in San Francisco: “The moderate drinkers tend to do everything right—they exercise, they don’t smoke, they eat right and they drink moderately. It’s very hard to disentangle all of that, and that’s a real problem.”

The fact that abstainers and moderate drinkers have widely different life styles is crucial in understanding why one must be cautious in claiming a causal relationship in this case or, by extrapolation, to any statistical correlation, regardless of its size.

Rabin adds to the plausibility of this interpretation by citing the data of Dr. Naimi of the C.D.C. who reports that moderate drinkers and abstainers are “so different that they simply cannot be compared. Moderate drinkers are healthier, wealthier and more educated, and they get better health care, even thought they are more likely to smoke. Moderate drinkers tend to be socially advantaged in ways that have nothing to do with their drinking. These two groups are apples and oranges.”

Rabin reminds us that many researchers are haunted by the recently discovered mistakes in studies of hormone replacement therapy, “which was widely prescribed for years on the basis of observation studies similar to the kind done on alcohol.”

The fact remains that researchers have yet to carry out the kind of randomized, controlled experiment in which a group of abstainers are randomly assigned either to get a daily dose of alcohol or not and then closely monitored for several years to determine its effects on indices of health. Comparable designs can be imagined for other subgroups of individuals, such as those who are at risk for cardiovascular disease or diabetes. Such designs are uniformly required before the introduction of any new pharmaceutical agent in this country.

She concludes her article by quoting Dr. Sei Lee, again from the University of California Medical School in San Francisco who recently proposed a large randomized clinical trial on alcohol and health. “But this is a really important question, because here we have a readily available and widely used substance that may actually have a significant health benefit—but we just don’t know enough to make recommendations”

6.17.2009

Changed By Literature

When someone says it was literature or a great book that changed their life, we remain pretty much in the dark about how, in fact, that happened. Tobias Wolff wrote:

“I was changed by literature, not by cautionary or exhortatory literature, but by the truth as I found it in literature. I recognize the world in a different way because of it, and I continue to be influenced in that way by it. Opened up, made more alert, and called to a greater truthfulness in my own accounting of things, not just in my writing, in my life as well. It did that for me, and does that for me, and no one touched by it in this way should have any doubt of its necessity.”

One might wonder in what way literature came to have such a significant impact on Wolff? Did he take a course from in college from a superb teacher? Or did his parents read Tolstoy to one another at night? Or did he simply come to literature on his own, gradually, over time? Knowing something about what led up to this change might suggest something more general about the conditions that give rise to a reader or writer.

I chanced upon the answer to these questions in an essay, A Brother’s Story, he wrote for the recently published Brothers: 26 Stories of Love and Rivalry. He writes about a visit he and his older brother Geoffrey, made to their father’s home in La Jolla one memorable summer. His brother had just graduated from Princeton and had been offered an enviable teaching position in Istanbul. They hadn’t seen their father in over seven years. But just before they arrived, their father had suffered a complete breakdown and had been taken by his fiancĂ© to a sanitarium.

What does Geoffrey do? Does he send Tobias back to Washington State and turn around to return east? What he does is first find a job, then buy a car and find the two of them another apartment as their father had been evicted from the one he occupied for failing to pay the rent.

Then Wolff says, Geoffrey assigned him a rather rigorous schedule of reading and writing. He told him to write an essay on an assigned text every three or four days. The readings were all new to him—Greek plays, works by Camus, novels by Fitzgerald and Faulkner, etc. Wolff writes,

“Those few months changed me….until that summer I’d never known anyone who lived for ideas and words; to whom writing, his own and others’ was not a diversion from life but an imperative form of life….after that summer I never really wanted to be anything else. Week after week of breathing the incense of respect for sentences and stories helped bring me to the judgment, right or wrong, that there was no better way to spend my life than in making them.”

So it was that unexpected turn of events the summer he spent with his brother that helped Wolff see his way to becoming a writer. He says he was “damned lucky.” And he learned that, “I had a brother who would act against his own immediate interest on my behalf, not just on impulse but day after day.” He concludes, “The good luck of having a brother is partly the luck of having stories to tell.”

I too have had the good luck of knowing another person who showed me a better way to spend my life. I think that is the way it often happens to individuals who come to love literature and the writing life or the pleasures to be found in a life of learning. In my case, it wasn’t my brother, but rather a teacher I had in college and his extraordinary class on Plato that started me down the path to also becoming one. Alas, that is another story.

6.16.2009

Kindle Killer

Does the reading experience vary as a function of the format of the text? Does it matter, for example, if we read a printed book (paperback or hardcover) or the same text in an ebook or listen to it with an audiobook? Do we prefer, enjoy, or benefit as much from one format more than the others? A good deal of current discussion of the changing nature, to say nothing of the decline, in reading turns on these questions.

One would think it is a simply a matter of carrying out an experimental investigation(s) to gain some clarity on these issues. To my knowledge not such study has been published, although I strongly suspect (and hope) several are currently underway or in the works. Absent such a study, we have to fall back on the reports on individuals who have tried to compare the reading options that are currently available.

Ann Kirschner recently described such a comparison in her essay, Reading Dickens Four Ways: How Little Dorrit fares in multiple text formats in The Chronicle of Higher Education. In her study, which she refers to as an experiment, she chose to read Little Dorrit four ways: paperback, audiobook, Kindle, and iPhone.

Naturally she didn’t read all of this 1,000-page story in each format. Rather she skipped around in an alternating fashion between the four as she progressed through the tale. Kirschner says, “It was often maddening to keep finding and losing my pace as I switched from format to format. But as an experiment, it taught me a great deal about my reading habits, and about how a text reveals itself differently as the reading context changes.”

She started with the paperback version, observing along the way the notes she had made in her old Penguin edition. She wrote, “How dare we think that anything could replace it? Impossible to imagine that any of these newfangled devices could last nearly 40 years. The perfume of the old paper filled the air.” She could have stopped there, but she forged on, turning next to the audiobook version.

She found the narrator competent but uninspired and concluded after a while that the audiobook had might “win” since you could listen while walking, driving, “applying makeup makeup, cooking and in the dentist’s chair.”

She moved on to the iPhone version noting that its eReader application (free) included the original illustrations, the explanatory footnotes (impossible with an audiobook, with intuitive controls and that she “was soon able to bookmark pages, highlight the text and switch back and forth between novel and notes.” She declares, “The iPhone is a Kindle killer.”

Finally she reports she abandoned the Kindle edition of Little Dorrit “almost as soon as I read one chapter on my iPhone. Kindle, shmindle. It does almost nothing that an iPhone can’t do better.” She disliked Kindle’s clumsy way of turning pages and its momentary blackouts a constant annoyance, “especially compared with the delicate swipe or tap that changes instantaneously on the iPhone.”

To be sure, Kirschner acknowledges the relatively small screen of the iPhone which she suggests might be a problem for the middle-age and older readers, but not for the generation that spends house playing games and reading text messages on cellphones.

She concludes that it is reading per se that is critical. “It is the sustained and individual encounter with ideas and stories that is so bewitching. If new formats allow us to have more of those, let us welcome and learning from them.” And she is certain that even Dickens himself would be experimenting with new formats for his novel, “seeking ways to expand his impact on readers.”

6.15.2009

Advice Is Like Snow

When you found someone who was tremendously appealing but not quite perfect, you might believe you could change them after marriage, not everything, just a few things, but in truth the most you could expect to change perhaps one thing and even that would eventually go back to what it had been. James Salter

Who has not attempted to mold their partner into the person they might wish them to be? Or at least, chip away at the edges of their character? People think they can change their partner or other people in general, but the long and dismal record of human relationships makes it abundantly clear that it is not going to happen.

It does, however, in Neil LaBute’s drama and later movie, The Shape of Things. A young graduate student of art virtually refashions the person of her lover. She induces him to lose weight, get rid of his glasses in favor of contacts, change his hairstyle, wear hip clothing, and straighten his nose. At her instigation, he becomes a work of art, a “human sculpture” which takes her eighteen months to create for her graduate thesis project.

She says, “it was “a simple matter of can i instill “x” amount of change in this creature, using only manipulation as my palette knife? i made sure that nothing was ever forced during our sessions or ‘sittings’ together…and that his free will was always at the forefront of each decision. i coaxed, made suggestions, created the illusion of interest and desire, but never said, ‘please do this.”

While the student shows considerable insight about manipulating behavior, one can take some consolation in knowing that life doesn’t imitate art quite so readily. Her insight is to recognize that forceful attempts to change a partner’s behavior usually backfire and serve only to elicit resistance and disagreements. Her approach is much more subtle--she makes no demands and applies little pressure. She knows that when partners feel they are understood and accepted, they are more likely to change willingly.

Indeed, her method is not unlike that of a highly successful marital therapy known as “integrative couples therapy.” As Christensen and Jacobs, the developers of this approach, put it: “The natural inclination is to try to change your partner, but efforts directed solely at such change often makes the conflict worse. When you genuinely accept your partner, you may achieve peace from the conflict and, paradoxically change from your partner.”

Again, if this is the way change occurs, we have further support for Etzioni’s argument that “core assumption” of how behavior changes may be seriously in error. More often than not, individuals change without deliberate external influence. Major shifts in behavior frequently follow unexpected, unpredictable, random events.

And less powerful techniques of external control have proved to be more effective than stronger ones. For example the research of social psychologists has suggested that a person’s interest in pursuing a desirable activity is often undermined by rewarding them for it. Similarly superfluous threats for engaging in an undesirable behavior can sometimes increase rather than decrease its occurrence.

Intentional efforts to change a person’s behavior are often most effective when a subtle, low-key approach is used. While a heavy-handed approach may induce immediate compliance, it rarely leads to lasting change. The basic idea is the same as Samuel Coleridge once suggested,

Advice is like snow: the softer it falls…the deeper it sinks into the mind. Samuel Taylor Coleridge

6.13.2009

Weekend Links

Video of the Week
http://thesituationist.wordpress.com/2009/06/05/dan-ariely-as-a-situationist/

Life Without a Car

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/opinions/object-of-desire-or-necessary-evil/article1171520/

Concentrate

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/05/science/05tier.html

On the Migrant Experience
http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/jun/10/elise-valmorbida-migrant-experience

Aleksandar Hemon Interview
http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2009/06/the-exchange-aleksander-hemon.html

Ten Inventions That Changed the World

http://www.newscientist.com/gallery/dn17273-ten-most-historic-science-objects

6.12.2009

What Had Come Over Her?

In 1972 Amitai Etzioni published an article in the old Saturday Review on the difficulties of changing behavior. Etizioni argued that there is something basically wrong with most efforts to change human behavior. To be sure individuals can be taught many new skills, languages, and intellectual competencies. But when we turn to modifying fundamental values, and personality traits, as well as other persistent habits like cigarette smoking, drug addiction or overeating, we may have a far more difficult time.

Etizioni made a strong case for a re-examination of our core assumptions about the behavior change process and concluded: “We are now confronting the uncomfortable possibility that human beings are not very easily changed after all.” How then do individuals change? The authors of imaginative literature are by no means silent on this question.

In Bertold Brecht’s short story The Unseemly Old Lady a respectable seventy-two year old grandmother, who managed a household of five children in a small town in Germany, is suddenly transformed after the death of her husband. We learn about the remarkable changes in her behavior from the letters her children wrote each other about what should be done about her and from the reports her husband’s business associate, a printer,

She begins going to the cinema, something she never did before her husband died. Then she starts spending a good deal of time at a nearby cobbler’s workshop located “in a poor and even slightly notorious alley, frequented by all manner of disreputable characters.” During the summer, she would often rise very early, around 3 am, and walk about the deserted streets of the town by herself. The story is narrated by one of her grandchildren who observers,

“About six months after my grandfather’s death the printer wrote to my father saying their mother now ate at the inn every other day. That was really news! Grandmother, who in all her life had cooked for a dozen people and herself had always eaten up the leavings, now ate at the inn. What had come over her?”


Then she hires a horse-drawn vehicle that takes her on periodic trips around the countryside, sometimes in the company of a “feeble-minded” young girl. Finally, she no longer shows any interest in her family, turning away from opportunities to visit with her children or welcome them to her home. She died quite suddenly without illness a few years after her husband’s death. Her granddaughter says,

“When you come to think of it, she lived two lives in succession. The first one as daughter, wife and mother; the second simply as Mrs. B, an unattached person without responsibilities and with modest but sufficient means.” Brecht concludes, “She had savoured to the full the long years of servitude and the short years of freedom and consumed the bread of life to the last crumb.”

I also view the tale as an example of how significant changes in behavior occur quite naturally. Her grandmother’s metamorphosis is not an entirely unknown reaction following the death of a spouse. Indeed, fundamental changes in the circumstances of one’s life often serve as a catalyst for comparable shifts in behavior. A divorce, job layoff, a personal or spiritual crises, a physical illness, a family inheritance, even a good book, etc. can often set the occasion for striking out on a totally new path.

These are not the kind of conditions that can be induced by an agent of change or, for example, a communication campaign or incentive program. But when they occur naturally during the course of one’s life, they can exert a powerful effect. They are also relatively infrequent and, as a result, do not often induce a major transformation in one’s life.

6.11.2009

Bruno Schulz

The Israeli novelist David Grossman has written a moving essay in the current New Yorker about Bruno Schulz, a writer, graphic artist, and literary critic whose work is unknown to me. Schulz was born just before the turn of the century in 1892 and spent his entire life in what is now Poland. A Nazi German officer killed him in 1942

Once he started writing, Grossman says he knew he would one day have to write about the Shoah. Schulz’s work opened the door for him and in the same way how to live after the Shoah. In his essay Grossman conveys the enormous respect and joy he has in reading Schulz’s work, a sentiment that makes it especially affecting to me.

Is there a writer whose work you greatly admire, a writer you enjoy reading regardless of what he or she writes about, a writer whose next work you can’t wait to be published? Bruno Schulz was just such a writer for David Grossman. About Schulz’s work he says,

“Sometimes there are such moments of grace: you open a book by an author you don’t know, and suddenly you feel yourself passing through a magnetic field that sends you in a new direction, setting off eddies that you’d barely sensed before and could not name. I read Schulz’s stories and felt the gush of life.”


Later Grossman expands on what Schulz means to him. “Reading his works made me realize that, in our day-to-day routines, we feel our lives most when they are running out: as we age, as we lose our physical abilities, our health, and, of course, family members and friends who are important to us. Then we pause for a moment, sink into ourselves, and feel: here was something, and now it is gone. It will not return. And it may be that we understand it, truly and deeply, only when it is lost. But when we read Schulz, page-by-page, we sense the words returning to their source, to the strongest and most authentic pulse of the life within them. Suddenly we want more. Suddenly we know that it is possible to want more, that life is greater than what grows dim with us and steadily fades away.”

Grossman finds solace in Schulz’s affirmation of the power of imagination and a total lack of cynicism that is so widely heard today. Schultz seems to give him the strength to carry on with his own work and pull him out of periods of despair. He concludes his essay with this tribute,

“In recent years, I’ve been going back more or less once a year, to the stories of Bruno Schulz. For me it’s a sort of annual tune-up, a strengthening of the antibodies against the temptations of apathy and withdrawal. Every time I open his books, I am amazed anew to discover how this writer, a single human being who rarely left his home town created for us an entire world, an alternate dimension of reality, and how he continues even now, so many years after his death, to fed us grains of sugar—and crumbs of bread—so that we may somehow make it through the cold, endless winter.”

What better expression on the power of the pen and the enormous pleasure it can provide! Of course, Grossman’s essay prompts me to put an end to my ignorance of Schulz’s work.

I’ve been mulling over those writers whose works mean that much to me. In the beginning it was always Hemingway. But I’ve read his novels and stories so often they have lost some of their original impact. And now I greatly look forward to Philip Roth’s next book; two are scheduled for this year. But I am not sure they give rise to the kind of feeling Grossman has for Schulz’s work. I am looking forward to the next translation of a Pascal Mercier work of fiction. His novel, Night Train to Lisbon, was the finest book I’ve read in years. But then you never know what writer or what novel will get you “through the cold endless winter.” That is why you always keep reading.

6.10.2009

Briefly Noted


Summer Reading
In the Summer Fiction Issue of The New Yorker, Yiyun Li writes about reading A Farewell to Arms, during a hot and humid summer in Beijing. She says,

“I would have given up the use of both my legs to be in Italy, drinking vermouth, watching horse races, and exchanging off-color jokes with my fellow-officers…” Later she continues, “All would be well if you lived in a novel; even when death crept up on you, the end would come in a few pages or a few lines.”

Aleksandar Hemon also describes the long summer reading holidays he used to spend alone in his parent’s cabin on a mountain about twenty miles from Sarajevo. He says he could read eight to ten hours a day. How I wish I could do that. He writes, “In the cabin, I would enter a kind of hypersensitive trance that allowed me to average found hundred pages a day.”

It took him less than a week to read War and Peaceand Bokonsky and Natasha showed up regularly in my dreams.”

He took a book with him on his hikes and reports that while reading The Magic Mountain he “…conducted conversations with imaginary partners not unlike the ones between Castorp and Settembrini in Thomas Mann’s novel.”

When the war in Croatia was in full swing and about to extend into Bosnia, his reading “was not primarily a means of thought protection, for once war gets inside your mind it burns and pillages it. Reading was a way not to think about all that could (and would) happen.”

What are you reading this summer? I invite you to tell me about a really good “summer read.” As for me, I’m going back and forth between Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi: A Novel by Geoff Dyer and Brothers: 26 Stories of Love and Rivalry, a collection of essays by various writers about their brother. I’m not greatly enamored by either and continue looking for that memorable book that I will remember reading in the summer of 2009.

New Yorker Summit
On May 5th of this year The New Yorker magazine held its annual Summit gathering that brought together influential figures from the worlds of finance, government, health care, and energy to discuss some of the major issues of the day.

Among this year’s speakers the activist and author Naomi Klein, Nassim N. Taleb, the author of the best-selling book "The Black Swan,” Elizabeth Edwards, who spoke about health care and Malcolm Gladwell who presented his take on the causes of the current economic meltdown.

All the presentations and a daily blog about the event can be viewed on the News Desk of the magazine. These are great video lecture-discussions if you have the time.

Choice
On his blog, The Frontal Cortex, Jonah Lehrer writes about the consequences of the enormous number of choices available to a consumer considering buying a product, almost any product from a car to a box of cereal. He describes it as the American obsession with choice. Imagine any situation in which we wish to purchase a product. He quotes Gail Collins, who describes it this way:

“…my corner drugstore offers, by my last count, 103 different kinds of body moisturizers. These are not, of course, to be confused with moisturizers for the face, hand, elbow or foot. We, the informed shoppers, are supposed to scan the crowded shelves and decide whether our needs will best be met by body oil, body butter or firming emulsion. We will, perhaps, mull the "udder cream" whose big selling point is that it was originally developed for use on dairy cows.”

We begin to wonder about all these choices. How can we ever decide? How does body butter differ from body oil and how does Avon’s body oil differ from Chanel’s? We are overwhelmed with too much information, too much uncertainty. Do we walk away utterly befuddled or worse? Do we respond with our pocketbook or simply decide randomly?

6.09.2009

Time On My Hands

Reading Ian McEwan’s The Child in Time led me to further consider the nature of time. What is time? Does the question have any meaning? Physicists have given considerable thought to fundamental nature of time as reflected, for example, in the Big Bang Theory and Theory of Relativity. And students of other disciplines (e.g. astronomy, religion and philosophy) have considered its nature. So have a few novelists.

Christopher Wilkins in The Measure of Love is an example. His novel could just as easily have been called The Measure of Time. Robert Garrett is a mathematical prodigy who has long been studying the measure of time who, when he meets a young woman, Elizabeth, “makes time for him stand still.”

Soon after their marriage Elizabeth succumbs to a serious illness that leads to her death three years later. In her memory, Robert sets about to build a mechanical watch that will be the most accurate timepiece ever created. Throughout this tragic tale Robert meditates on the woman he loved while also pondering the history of timekeeping and the nature of time and memory.

The novel begins with this passage: “Time is memory. Simple as that. Without memory, there can be no time. No before and after, no sooner or later, no now and then. After all, how do we detect what we call the passage of time except by perceiving change? But without memory, all change would be imperceptible. We see the leaves in the forest are turning brown and we think, “autumn already. How time flies.” But that is because we remember how the forest looks in summer. The forest alone, denied our memories could not bear witness to the passage of time.”

Later we learn that St. Augustine’s view of time was “roughly speaking, that the present is the only thing that is real, that exists, and that both the past and the future exist only in the present. The past is a memory, which happens in the present, and the future is anticipation, which also happens in the present. As he puts it, there are three times, “a present of things past, a present of things present and a present of things future. The present of things past is memory, the present of things present is sight and the present of things future is expectation.”

This echoes the opening stanza of Eliot’s Burnt Norton:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.


In one other lengthy passage from The Measure of Love, Wilkins writes, “It is remarkable how often we use the word “time” in everyday conversation. We talk about having time or of not having enough time or of needing more time, much as we talk about money or food. We say it was a long time or it was a short time in the same way we refer to a sentence or a rope. We can have a good time or we can have a bad time and we can make time or find time. We have no time for those we despise, yet a lot of time for those we love. We can mark time and we can beat time…we can waste time and we can save time. If we are lucky our bodies will not suffer the ravages of time, but if we are unlucky we may serve time or even die before our time. Events like birthdays happen to different people at different times while the occurrence of a sunspot eruption happens to us all at the same time. We speak of the pressure of time as though referring to some gaseous or aqueous matter; we find ourselves up against time as thought preparing for a fight. Time is the enemy, time will tell, time is the great physician and the wisest of counselors…We talk of time lags, time warps and time bombs…We take time out, work overtime and make up for lost time, gain time, buy time and it is high time we recognized that we are talking about something which we do not, any more than did St. Augustine, begin to understand. Time after time and time again we refer to this thing called time without giving it a second’s thought and doubtless we shall continue to do so until the last syllable of it has been recorded and all life has ceased.”

I found that passage remarkable. How often (39 times, if you will, in the paragraph as written in the book) we apply the word “time” whose fundamental nature remains so elusive. Think about it the next time you use the word “time.” What does it denote? Time to stop.

6.08.2009

Points in Time

The tricks of chance play a major role in the novels of Ian McEwan. In Saturday, Henry Perowne is suddenly caught in the web of an automobile accident. In Enduring Love a man falls to his death from an airborne balloon. And in The Child in Time, a three year-old child suddenly disappears by her father’s side at a supermarket.

“The checkout girl was already at work, the fingers of one had flickering over the keypad while the other drew Stephen’s items toward her. As he took the salmon from the cart, he glanced down at Kate and winked. She copied him, but clumsily, wrinkling her nose and closing both eyes. He set the fish down and asked the girl for a shopping bag. She reached under a shelf and pulled one out. He took it and turned. Kate was gone.”

Stephen spends days searching for Kate, he knocks on doors, posts signs, walks the streets, notifies the police, all to no avail. Kate is gone, perhaps kidnapped by a stranger, no one ever finds out. Stephen’s wife, Julie is stricken with grief, remains at home, and retreats further and further away from Stephen. Nothing he does can comfort her. Their marriage unravels and Julie moves to an isolated cottage in the country, while Stephen spends his day in a solitary routine of drinking, television watching and daydreaming.

“Now there was no mutual consolation, no touching, no love. Their old intimacy, their habitual assumption that they were on the same side, was dead. They remained huddled over their separate losses, and unspoken resentments began to grow…The loss had driven them to the extremes of their personalities.”

Much of the remaining portion of the novel takes place in Stephen’s recollections of Kate’s life, his youth, and to the future world he imagines for Kate. And here we begin to see what it is that McEwan is trying to describe, namely, the nature of time. His physicist friend tells him that there is no absolute time, no independent entity, only our weak understanding of it. Yet through memory Stephen is able to unhinge time, to transport himself to times past and times future and in the process they become for him time present.

Stephen imagines Kate growing up; he refers to it as “the time that should have been hers.” McEwan writes, “Kate’s growing up had become the essence of time itself…Without the fantasy of her continued existence he was lost, time would stop.”

During a visit to Julie’s cottage in the country, Stephen finds himself transported to time past as he observes a conversation between his courting parents in which they are discussing whether or not to abort him. Later he learns from his mother that the conversation did in fact take place at the very pub Stephen was passing by.

Stephen’s best friend, originally the publisher responsible for his great success at a writer of children’s stories, now on a path to becoming Prime Minister, moves out to the country with his wife and regresses to a state of childlike eccentricity.

“He wanted the security of childhood, the powerlessness, the obedience, and also the freedom that goes with it, freedom from money, decisions, plans, demands. He used to say he wanted to escape from time, from appointments, schedules, deadlines. Childhood to him was timelessness; he talked about it as though it were a mystical state.”

Over the course of time Julie and Stephens wounds healed. “Being alone by choice can make you very clear-headed… I had to stop running after her in my mind. I had to stop aching for her, expecting her at the front door, seeing her in the woods or hearing her voice whenever I boiled the kettle. I had to go on loving her, but I had to stop desiring her. For that I needed time.”

Some time after Stephen had visited her, Julie becomes pregnant and this gives them a chance to imagine a future, a future together, to have their second chance as it were. In a review of The Child in Time, Michael Byrne writes, “McEwan holds out love as the only human force equal to time. Twice upon a time huddled around their newborn in its first moments of life, Stephen and Julie renew their commitment to each other and pay homage to the awful powers of Love and Time.”

6.06.2009

Weekend Links

Art in Novels
http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/jun/02/top-10-artworks-novels

Is This Progress?
http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2009/05/31/the_downward_spiral_of_progress/

Weighing in on The Kindle

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/29/books/29kind.html?em

Kate Atkinson on Publishing
http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/may/30/hay-festival-kate-atkinson-published

From a Great Book Festival
http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2009/may/29/hay-festival-dumbing-down

Open Letters: The Fiction Issue

http://openlettersmonthly.com/issue/

6.05.2009

Terminally Distracted

When I was a teenager, I went to school during most of the day and when I came home, I did my homework. When that was done, I sat in an armchair in my room, read for a while, and listened to the radio. That was pretty much an average day.

I did not have a telephone. Television had yet to make the scene. The Internet, Facebook, or the Yahoo Messenger meant nothing. I didn’t email anyone or tweet them or send them a text message either. No one had ever heard of iTunes or iPhoto, or a Power Point Presentation, let alone an RSS feed. I had an Underwood typewriter and that was it. In a word, I was not distracted by any of the attention getting stuff that has migrated to the center of our lives today.

Sam Anderson writes about the consequences of this “crisis” in a lengthy essay, In Defense of Distraction, in the May 17th issue of New York magazine. He cites a recent study that found American teenagers spend an average of 6.5 hours a day focused on the electronic world. A day! And Anderson says that strikes him as a little low. He says the alarmists would have us believe we are “terminally distracted.”

In Anderson’s view this doomsday fear is “silly for two reasons. First, social critics “have been blowing the apocalyptic bugle at every large-scale tech-driven social change since Socrates’ famous complaint about the memory-destroying properties of that newfangled technology called writing.”

Secondly, it is too late now to retreat to a quieter time, one like days of my youth. He says we are “increasingly tied” to the emerging technologies. “Information rains down faster and thicker every day, and there are plenty of non-moronic reasons for it to do so. The question, now, is how successfully we can adapt.”

The question he poses is the same one David Foster Wallace dealt with in his 2005 Commencement Address at Kenyon College. Wallace suggested it was simply a matter of being conscious of what you pay attention to, deciding what matters to you, and therefore, deserves your focus.

Anderson reports an interview (conducted on his cell phone, recorded on his digital recorder, subsequently downloaded onto his laptop) with David Meyer, a professor at the University of Michigan who is said to be an expert on multi-tasking. According to Meyer we are living through a crisis of attention that is going to get a lot worse than people expect. He views distraction as a “full-blown epidemic, “a cognitive plague that has the potential to wipe out an entire generation of focused and productive thought.”

You see in writing this, how easily I became distracted by the interview with Meyer, rather than the question two paragraphs back concerning what to do about this crisis. Anderson offers three solutions.

First, he refers to Winifred Gallagher who in her new book, Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, urges us to make a conscious choice of “attentional self-control,” that in the days, when I was a graduate student, used to be known as stimulus control. If you want to loose weight, don’t buy caloric food to put in your refrigerator; if the traffic noise outside your room is driving you crazy, go into the next room and shut the door; if you are trying to write a short story for The New Yorker, close your email system and turn off your Blackberry.

Second, Anderson cites Gallagher’s that while “you can’t be happy all the time, you can pretty much focus all the time.” The most promising solution to our multi-tasking crisis is the ancient technique of meditation—what she calls “secular attention workouts.”

She says we can only attend to a certain about of information at any given time, that “our moment-by-moment choice of attentional targets determines, in a very real sense, the shape of our lives.” She cites the philosopher and psychologist William James who wrote, “My experience is what I agree to attend to.” All this sounds a lot like David Foster Wallace’s urging us to make the conscious choice to attend to what matters.

Third, Gallagher recommends simply ignoring the distractions that disrupt our focus. We don’t often do that. We keep our cell phone on, our email system open, and our browser always showing in the background of our screen.

Anderson concludes his defense by discussing potential solutions to be found in neuroenhancers and lifehacking--essentially a self-help program that lays out a set of specific steps to allocate attention efficiently. He then wonders what is going to happen to the kids who have grown up in the electronic world. In Rapt Gallagher says that kids today grow up processing information at a superficial level, and when “you are forced to confront intellectually demanding situations in high school or college, you may find that you’ve traded depth of knowledge for breadth and stunted your capacity for serious thought.”

Will children who have been raised on the Internet lose the ability to concentrate on complex tasks? Or rather will they pick up new skills that will in the final analysis expand their cognitive abilities and ability to deal with all the distractions that I never heard of when I was a kid? These are clearly important questions that remain to be answered.

6.04.2009

Marvellous Stuff

After enjoying Elliot Perlman’s Seven Types of Ambiguity so much, I was interested to learn what the reviewers had to say about it. One critic described it as “fat, pretentious” and an “embarrassment.” Another described Perlman’s “talent for sharp satire,” and noted that portions of the book were “marvelous stuff.” Still another vacillated between “distinctly odd” and an “exciting gamble of a novel.”

What can a reader make of these differences, especially for someone who hasn’t read the novel? To read it or not to read it? There is only one way to answer this question. Forget about what the critics say and give the book a try. I did. And I thought it was a reading experience at its best.

As usual, I noticed the way the reviewers were silent about the effects the novel had on them personally. Instead they went about evaluating the text or Perlman’s writing skill or lack thereof. I suppose that is the customary practice. Critics don’t talk much about how a book affects them personally. I have never understood quite why.

What did they think about Simon? What kind of experience did they have in reading about him? Did his life and dilemmas reflect anything about their own life or contemporary life in general? Are these fair questions? They seem so to me. That should be clear from what I wrote yesterday.

Readers read so differently. The same text can mean something different for each reader and something different to them at another time in their life. One person's literary truth is another person's banal clichĂ©. I think of books, a good book, at least, as a cornucopia of meanings that vary widely between readers. Perhaps that’s why reading is such a remarkable experience.

In reviewing Seven Types of Ambiguity, Keith Gessen wrote “I can’t believe this book was published.” Gessen is one of the reigning contemporary American novelists and a highly regarded literary critic. Who am I to question his appraisal? And yet, I thought the novel was “marvelous stuff” and while it was perhaps a bit lengthy, it nevertheless brought a lot of pleasure to me.

Am I to question my taste, consider it nothing but the mark of a mediocre reader? I read a great deal and I do write a bit about the books I enjoy, although it is true, I remain an amateur at this. Should I dismiss the pleasure Perlman’s novel gave me?

No, I think it is simply because we differ in our preferences. And there are many reasons for that, probably having far less to do with literary acumen than they do with experience and background. Phyllis Rose expresses a similar view in her recent book The Year of Reading Proust: A Memoir in Real Time,

…but what I looked forward to most in reading Proust were revelations about myself. The best moments had been those in which I descended most deeply into myself…so I achieved a sudden clarify of vision….Proust understood that every reader, in reading, reads himself. Far from minding this, he saw it as the writer’s task to facilitate it. Thus the writer’s word is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers to the reader to enable him to discern what, without this book he would perhaps never have perceived in himself. And the recognition by the reader in his own self of what the book says is proof of its veracity.

Here Rose suggests that the power of literature lies in confirming those truths of experience that are unique to each individual. These truths are not to be found in generalities but rather in the specific conditions of our own lives. Since no one’s life is the same as any other, we are bound to differ in the way the reading experience affects us.

6.03.2009

Seven Types of Ambiguity

In my view Elliot Perlman’s Seven Types of Ambiguity is a terrific novel. Perlman, an Australian writer, tells the story of 32-year-old Simon Heywood, a brilliant, widely read teacher who is also a little bit too obsessed with his former lover, Anna. The 600 plus page story is narrated from seven different points of view, including Simon himself, Anna, Alex, his psychiatrist and Angelique his “hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold girl friend.”

I found Simon an immensely likeable person whose plight I understood quite well and who I grew to care about. His life bears a certain similarity to my own, distant to be sure but close enough. In one way or another this is true of most of my fictional friends. Perlman writes: “…readers usually identify with one or other of the characters in a story…That is why most of them read fiction in the first place.”

Simon never fit in, he never found a world that accepted his quirky views or made the most of his versatile mind. Simon says of himself, “I was just not cut out for the business of living at a time like this, a time when wondering, caring, dreaming…they were just not selling, they were uncool, unhip, not sexy, past their expiration date…Some other time maybe.”

Simon read poetry at a time when not many others did. He really had no one to talk with about the poems, the music, the movies, the history and politics that meant something to him. But he longed for such a connection. Perlman writes, “Most people are alone. To not be alone somebody has to connect with you and you have to connect with them. I mean really connect. I mean that somebody has to make the emotional and intellectual effort to come with you as you ride the relentless waves of fear and hope, of pain and pleasure, of doubt and certainty, that inhabit the sea of human experience.”

Not even Anna, his one and only Anna, the Anna who had rejected him in spite of or perhaps because of his deep love for her. She says: “I wasn’t any longer feeling augmented by him but diminished.” I doubt I would have felt so diminished. Instead, I know I would have enjoyed talking with Simon about the arts, culture, and ideas that he was drawn to. But then I am not Anna.

But then Simon did something stupid. He “abducted” or so it was claimed, Anna’s son, Sam, who he had previously unbeknownst to Anna and her husband, saved from drowning in their pool. You help a friend in need. I would have liked to have helped Simon get through the consequences of what he admits was an irrational and futile act.

To my way of thinking Simon was a very bright, beguiling young man, full of ideas, many of them seemingly crazy but on analysis ever so sensible who was thoroughly misunderstood by just about everyone, even his therapist who often seemed utterly befuddled by what Simon did and thought.

I never thought Simon was depressed as others did, at least, in its clinical form. Rather I thought he was simply a little melancholic, not without justification in my view and he was unhappy, sometimes very much so, just like everyone else. As Alex, his therapist notes “Simon has always been, other than for short periods, too involved in things to be clinically depressed.”

There wasn’t any pretense to Simon; he was totally honest and up front about everything. That surely doomed him to anything approaching a normal life. Simon also knew as well as anybody else who he was and why his life was drifting aimlessly. In describing himself, he says,

“I was a man of more than average intelligence seasoned by years of wide and considered reading, a man of not unpleasing visage and of some awareness of the mighty winds and faint breezes that move the world, a man sensitive both to the plight of the many and to that of the man in his shirt sleeves ambling through the leaves in the city park during his lunch hour, desperately trying to keep his own tepid inconsequence at bay…”

He knew his best and he knew his worst, knew how perfectly rational he could be at one time and then at another fall into a web of destructive obsession. Aren’t we all a mixture of two or more selves? And so it was not difficult to admire Simon, to want to read every one of the 600 odd pages of Seven Types of Ambiguity to learn how things worked out for him. For a very long time Simon was a literary friend of mine and at times a shadowy reflection of the person I am as well. If you have already read the novel, perhaps you felt somewhat the same way; if you haven’t perhaps you will.