Weekend Links

This edition of the Weekend Links point to some of the issues previously discussed on Marks in the Margin, as well as some literary and educational happenings during the past week.

Award to Exceptional Writer-Provocateur

Online Communal Book Club

The Future of the Book

National Health Reform

Online University Lectures

How Prolific Can One Writer Be?

Another Newspaper Closing



I'd Rather Be At Powell's

After living in Portland, Oregon for most of my adult life, I recently moved to Honolulu largely to escape the long, cold, wet winters in the Northwest. It is almost March and a friend wrote me today that in snowed last night in Portland.

I think often of the city and what I’d be doing there now. Even when it was cold or rainy, I went to Powell’s Bookstore several times a week. I was fortunate in that it was located a few blocks from my home. Of all my favorite places in Portland, Powell’s is the one place I miss the most.

Just before moving to Hawaii, I went one night over to the store. It was the first time I had been there in a while. I went upstairs to the book holding room. I had ordered a book from their warehouse the day before and here it was the very next day. It is a long walk up to the 5th floor but I didn’t mind, since it took me through the philosophy section with all those treasures I wanted to read or read again. I came downstairs to the 4th floor where a reading was about to begin and stopped to scan the book the visiting author was going to discuss. It seemed interesting and I thought about staying. Afterward, I regretted that I didn’t.

And then I wandered around the travel section on the third floor and eventually returned to the new book section on the 1st floor. It felt really good to be there, so close to where my home was, even though the night was cold and wet. And the next morning I thought it might be hard to live in a place where Powell’s wasn’t just a couple of blocks down the way. And then I wondered if a bookstore, if Powell’s, could keep a person, keep me, in a town that I found so cold and oppressive most of the year.

Many writers have written about Powell’s. Many Portland area writers work there and many others would like to. Most writers speak at Powell’s on their national book tour. I have listen to former students talk about the books they have written and well known writers read from their latest novel. More often than not I must stand to listen. Even though there is an ample supply of seats in the Reading Room, it is always filled to capacity long before the author arrives.

The writer Laila Lalami recently left Portland for a teaching position in California. Here is what she wrote just before leaving:

We went to Powell's last night, and being in those aisles almost brought me to tears. The Blue Room! The literary magazine rack! The Cavallini notebooks! I picked up two travel books by Pico Iyer (The Lady and the Monk and Video Night in Kathmandu), a used hardcover, in excellent condition, of Moroccan anthropologist Abdellah Hammoudi's A Season in Mecca, Coetzee's memoir Youth, and a few other titles for fall. Few places give readers so much opportunity as Powell's to explore and try something different. I don't know what I'm going to do without it.

David Shipley, coauthor with Will Schwalbe of their recently published Send, a guide to e-mailing wrote:

I was born in Portland (1963) and grew up there. Powell's was a fixture of my childhood, … The store was smaller, colder, dingier, moldier. The windows — and this could be memory talking — seemed perpetually steamed up. I can't help thinking back to those days now — back to those afternoons when my mom carted my brother and sister and me (all of us crowded in the wayback of her deep green 1972 Volvo, long before seatbelts were mandatory) downtown to hang out at Powell's and get lost in and among books.

The late Susan Sontag called it the “best bookstore in the English-speaking world.” And Susan Sontag usually knew what she was talking about. If you do not live in Portland, I invite you to visit Powell’s website, where you can stroll about the shelves, buy a book or two, or subscribe to their several e-mail newsletters.

Powell’s has been widely written about in the press. From the many observations collected on its website, I have selected a few to post below:

"The point is Powell's probably is the world's greatest bookstore. It is a place of staggering ambition, hidden in the very humble wrapper of a worn-out warehouse. Any library we seek tax money to build ought to measure up to Powell's or it isn't worth it." The Seattle Times

"And I love the unique sense of expectancy that, time and again, carries me into Powell's. It's not unlike the anticipation wrought by a great book ... and it is the hallmark of a great bookstore." Steve Dunn, The Oregonian

"The once heretical notion of putting new books next to used ones turned out to be absolutely brilliant." Inc. Magazine, May 2004

"Party crasher Ralph Nader, on walking Monday night through Mike Powell's bookstore: 'This is what civilization should look like.'" The Oregonian, January 23, 2002

"There simply is no place in America like Powell's. No bookstore is so big or so meticulously organized, and none has such a psychic hold on so large a community.... Authors on book tours have been known to ask for an extra day [in Portland] just to wander its aisles." John Balzar, Los Angeles Times

"They are just one of the finest operations in the country, the most innovative and creative..." The Wall Street Journal, September 21, 1998


Riffing With Words

In addition, to the empirical temperament of Ian McEwan’s literary works, there is a subtle appreciation of music lurking the background. I am occasionally reminded of a jazz musician riffing when I read some of the long reveries in his novels. He remarks in Zalewski’s New Yorker (February 23, 2009) profile that “…in terms of the pulse of a sentence I care as much as anyone.”

This is clearly illustrated in Saturday when Perowne takes off on one of the many daydreams that McEwan sprinkles throughout the novel. In the unforgettable early morning scene that begins the novel Perowne falls into such a state as he observes his own mood:

“It is not clear to him when exactly he became conscious, nor does it seem relevant…It’s as if, standing there in the darkness, he’s materialized out of nothing, fully formed, unencumbered….Henry thinks the city is a success, a brilliant invention, a biological masterpiece—millions teeming around the accumulated and layered achievements of the centuries, as though around a coral reef, sleeping, working, entertaining themselves, harmonious for the most part, nearly everyone wanting it to be work.”

Zalewski quotes the ending of McEwan’s 1992 novel Black Dogs as further example of his tendency to drift into a meditative trace-like mood which is this case becomes almost poetic:

“She was delivered into herself, she was changed. This, now, here. Surely this was what existence strained to be, and so rarely had the chance: to savor itself fully in the present……the smooth darkening summer air, the scent of thyme crushed underfoot, her hunger, her slaked thirst, the warm stone she could feel through her shirt, the aftertaste of peach, the stickiness on her hand, her tired legs, her sweaty, sunny, dusty fatigue.”

While writers often describe how hard it is to write well, rarely do they speak about how enjoyable it can be. McEwan is an exception. He notes: “One thing that’s missing from the discussion of literature in the academy is the pleasure principle. Not only the pleasure of the reader but also of the writer. Writing is a self-pleasuring act.”

One of the several passages in Saturday where Perowne enters into a recollection of an operation he had earlier performed also illustrates the great pleasure McEwan finds in his “love of sculpting prose:”

"For the past two hours he’s been in a dream of absorption that has dissolved all sense of time, and all awareness of the other parts of his life. Even his awareness of his own existence has vanished. He’s been delivered into a pure present, free of the weight of the past the past or any anxieties about the future. In retrospect, though never at the time, it feels like profound happiness. It’s a little like sex, in that he feels himself in another medium, but it’s less obviously pleasurable, and clearly not sensual. This state of mind brings a contentment he never finds with any passive form of entertainment. Books, cinema, even music can’t bring him to this…This benevolent dissociation seems to require difficulty, prolonged demands on concentration and skills, pressure, problems to be solved, even danger. He feels calm, and spacious, fully qualified to exist. It’s a feeling of clarified emptiness, of deep muted job."

McEwan’s obvious pleasure in riffing with words leads me to wonder if he might secretly wish to be a musician. I do know from Zalewski’s profile that he likes live music and that recently he wrote the libretto for a new opera. And in Saturday while ruminating about his son’s rock musical career, Perowne admits

“There’s nothing in his own life that contains this inventiveness, this style of being free. The music speaks to unexpressed longing or frustration, a sense that he’s being denied himself an open road, the life of the heart celebrated in the songs. There has to be more to life than merely saving lives.”

It was a treat for me to learn about McEwan’s life, his many friends and many talents. He is one of those authors whose next novel I look forward to reading and will inevitably purchase a copy the moment it becomes available.


An Empirical Temperament

When I read Saturday by Ian McEwan a few years ago, I was not only impressed with the power of the novel, but also by the extent to which McEwan introduced neurophysiological and psychological analysis in his tale. There is this foolish tradition that fiction and science simply don’t mix. To my mind, McEwan’s talent in disabusing the reader of this myth in Saturday and elsewhere is among his greatest strengths.

In the February 23, 2009 issue of The New Yorker Daniel Zalewski has written a wide-ranging, highly informative profile of Ian McEwan. Because I have such great admiration for his literary fiction, I would like to convey some of what I learned about McEwan by discussing Zalewski’s profile during the next day or so.

Zalewski begins by pointing out that: “All novelists are scholars of human behavior but Ian McEwan pursues the matter with more scientific rigor than the job strictly requires.” Elsewhere he notes that McEwan regularly introduces his observations with reference to peer-reviewed studies. Doing this is very unusual but never once in reading Saturday did I feel it intruded on his fictional narrative.

In Saturday as Henry Perowne, a neurosurgeon, approaches the owner of the car he had just scraped in heavy traffic, he makes a mental note to himself that “…even as he sees, or senses, what’s coming towards him at such speed, there remains a portion of his thoughts a droning, pedestrian diagnostician who notes poor self control, emotional lability, explosive temper, suggestive of reduced levels of GABA among the appropriate binding sites on striatal neurons.”

And a few pages later “Who could ever reckon up the damage done to love and friendship and all hopes of happiness by a surfeit or depletion of this or that neurotransmitter?”

According to Zalewski “McEwan’s presiding interest has always been psychology.” In discussing his novel Atonement McEwan “pointed to a study in cognitive psychology suggesting that the best way to deceive someone is to first deceive yourself…(She [referring to Briony Tallis, the precious teenager who makes a false accusation of rape that led to the ruin of two lives] trapped herself, she marched into the labyrinth of her own construction.”

The study McEwan mentioned is one of the most widely cited in experimental social psychology. It laid the foundation for most of the work in cognitive dissonance theory whose central tenant is that holding two inconsistent ideas is a highly discomforting experience that individuals strive to reduce in a variety of non-obvious ways.

Oddly I was actually a subject in that experiment when I was an undergraduate student in psychology and I remember it vividly. After it was over, I was quite agitated for quite some time for the deception I was induced to make as a result of the experimental manipulation.

Zalewski notes that “Like many scientists of his generation, McEwan has shifted his intellectual allegiances. At first, he studied perversity; now he studies normality. His first god was Freud. Now it is Darwin.”

It is also clear McEwan is extremely well informed about current research in neuroscience. In Saturday, he writes about Perowne’s visit with his dementia stricken mother: “The disease proceeds by tiny unnoticed strokes in small blood vessels in the brain. Cumulatively, the infarcts cause cognitive decline by disrupting the neural nets.”

And further on in over six densely written pages he describes in exquisite technical detail one of the two surgeries that Perowne performs in the novel: “Perowne asks for the first of the big-self-retraining retractors…Although Rodney leans in with a Dakin’s syringe…Perowne takes a scalpel and makes a small incision in the dura…”

In a word Saturday was, as Zalewski points out “…a direct assault on the modern novel’s skepticism toward science.” No wonder I enjoyed reading it so much as it naturally blended the two cultures that have been so much a part of my life yet, at the same time are widely held to be incompatible with each other.


Unfinished Books

A letter-writing friend and I have been discussing the difficulty we have in not finishing a book we have started to read. We do not have an e-mail correspondence, rather it is one of the old fashion kind, where letters are written or typed, placed in a envelope, and then delivered in the mail all too many days later by the US Postal Service. We have been writing letters, truly wonderful letters, the type no one sends to you anymore, for almost three years. We have never met and I don’t imagine we ever will but we have become the best of friends. So much for speed dating.

In her last letter she writes: “But O the keenness of one’s disappointment in a book that one eagerly anticipated reading, as I did Steven Millhauser’s Dangerous Laughter—I’ve been listlessly turning each page, wrestling with the temptation to lay it aside without finishing it. (I almost never do that, but probably should.)”

It seems that lately I’ve also been doing that more often than I like. After reading Pascal Mercier’s Night Train to Lisbon, most of my book reading has been downhill. It seems to me there simply isn’t any intellectual fare among the writers of literary fiction at this time. A new Roth will be published later this year and I understand the same is true for Coetzee. Ian McEwan is also working on a new novel. But this isn’t helping me now.

For example, after reading an interesting interview of Richard Ford, I decided to try once again to read his first novel, The Sportswriter. It was going along just fine during the first 100 pages and I had made note of a goodly number of provocative passages. But then it simply stopped, no doubt at the same place it stopped when I first put it down many years ago. It was going nowhere then and it wasn’t going anywhere now. I had the same experience late last year when I began reading Ford’s latest novel, The Lay of the Land. It started off well and then seemed to me to simply come to a halt in mid-stream

What was I to do? I had read a third of both books. The passages were interesting. Couldn’t I tough it out for another 200 pages. Well, I wasn’t sure I could and since I am reluctant to add material to my Commonplace Book without finishing a book, these passages remained duly noted and parked on my shelf of unfinished books.

I am sure this is not an uncommon experience. A recent (March 2007) survey of 4,000 readers in England found that almost half of the books they bought remained unfinished. Booker winner Vernon God Little was the least-finished fiction title, followed by Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Autobiographies by David Blunkett, Bill Clinton, and David Beckham led the non-fiction unfinished list.

Some of the survey respondent’s accounts of why they failed to finish a book are rather amusing. From the larger collection, I selected the following to post below:

I am so jealous of those who didn’t finish Captain Coreill’s Mandolin. I persevered through that book, which built me into a frenzy, but the ending was awful and unsatisfying I threw the book out the window. As far as I know it’s still there.

I really struggled with Captain Coreilli’s Mandolin as the start of the book is very confused and actually quite dull. However, I persevered and after about page 25 it started to make sense and I ended up enjoying it immensely.

Several runs through Proust’s A la Receherche du Temps Perdu have failed to reach the finish line….

I started reading A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth about four times but have never got past half-way, although it’s a wonderful book. At 1474 pages, it’s difficult to stick with it when other new books are tempting you.

The one book that really shouldn’t be on the unfinished list is The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. It’s such a beautiful and inspirational read, and it’s relatively short in comparison to the others. No excuse people—finish what you started!!

Not the least surprised The Alchemist is up there. Glad to see so many other people must have shared my personal loathing for it. It must be the shortest book up there, why else would people not have finished it? Even shy of 200 pages, it was still unexpurgated tripe.

Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time is surely the most inaccessible best-selling book ever written. I suspect you could count the percentage of people who finished it on one hand!

War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy, after 100 pages—too many balls, banquets, and battles!

How can someone NOT finish a book? Surely when you open a book and decide to read it you make a commitment to read it through to the end. I read every day and have NEVER NOT FINISHED A BOOK.

I actually failed to finish reading the results of the survey. How many more ridiculous things can they find to ask the good old British public about?


In the Country of Books

Permit me just this once to promote a book I have written. My new book, In the Country of Books, has just been published in England. If you have an extra dollar or pound, it can now be purchased at all the online bookstores in the US and UK. I describe the publication this way.

In the Country of Books is an inquiry into the way literature enters the lives of readers and sometimes changes them. In most commentaries on literature the experience of the reader is virtually ignored as scholars and critics attempt to discern the meaning of the text from various theoretical or cultural frameworks. Instead, this volume focuses on the experience of readers, illustrated with accounts of the author’s reading experiences and current research findings.

The first section of the volume presents a historical background of commonplace books—an individual’s record or journal of memorable reading passages. The critical analysis of this literary form is not extensive. In antiquity commonplace books functioned as organized sources of knowledge and wisdom collected for use in philosophical discussions, public speeches, and legal disputes. Over the course of the following centuries, the form developed into personal collections of notable literary extracts organized in highly idiosyncratic ways.

In the Country of Books
is the first contemporary review of the commonplace book tradition, as well as a unique, in-depth analysis of a single commonplace book. It also presents the results of the first-ever survey of individuals who currently keep such a record. This is followed by an overview of the recent appearance of commonplace books on the Web, a study of the author’s commonplace book, and a discussion of the future of the commonplace book tradition.

The essays in the second section of In the Country of Books discuss a number of literary topics including several contemporary literary works, the function of bookmarks in the reading experience, The New Yorker magazine, and the current status of libraries. The volume concludes with an analysis of the varied effects of reading literature, including a review of anecdotal and empirical research on this issue.

I invite readers to e-mail me (rkatzev@gmail.com) if you have questions about the book or would like to discuss its contents.


Weekend Links

Here are some of the most interesting pages I read or viewed on the Web this week. They range all over the place from music to evaluation research and the economy, as well as literature, of course.

A Musical Sensation

Other Literary Blogs

Return of Evaluation Research

McEwan on Updike


In Praise of Pinter


A Cautionary Tale


About Schmidt--The Film

In response to my post on Louis Begley’s About Schmidt, I was asked about the subsequent film version of the novel. I have no idea why they gave the film the same title as the Begley novel. The Schmidt in the film is nothing like the Schmidt in the book, at least as far as I had imagined him to be.

I am glad I knew that in advance, for I would have been even more disappointed than I was with the film if I had not known it. I might even have felt differently about the film if it been given a different title, something like “A Life of Cheerful Desperation.” I know I would have been eager to see that one.

Naturally a film doesn’t have to be a replica of the novel upon which it is based. However, if you have read the novel first you develop certain expectations about the characters and the situations they encounter. If the film departs widely from these notions, viewing it can sometimes be unsettling or as I felt in the case of About Schmidt rather jarring. On the other hand, I did not feel this way in viewing The Reader, Atonement or, say, The English Patient or more recently Revolutionary Road, each of which remained fairly true to their novelistic predecessor and, at least in my case, contributed to a deeper understanding of it.

In the book, Schmidt is a rich attorney in upper crust New York society with a Harvard degree and a second home in the Hamptons. In the film Schmidt is a middle class insurance actuary in Omaha, Nebraska with a degree from Kansas State and a huge Winnebago bought for his retirement.

The original Schmidt is also a bit of an anti-Semitic, has always slept around, most recently with the mother of his future son-in-law. In the film Schmidt hardly knows what an affair might be, couldn’t care less about a person’s religion, and is repulsed by his future mother-in-law.

I have been thinking a lot about the reasons for these differences, why those who wrote the film created a totally different Schmidt than Begley did in his book. Did they think the film would have greater appeal this way? What else could have motivated them? I am at a loss for any other explanation. However, the Schmidt of the book is far more interesting to me than the one in the film.

Yet both Schmidts are desperate to know what do with their life. What is a man to do, what can a man do, who has lost it all at this point in his life?

In reviewing the film (New York Times January 19, 2003) Begley comments that he “missed the theme of the redemptive and regenerate power of Eros, embodied in my novel by Carrie, the personage I care for most among all that I have created.”

“She is an improbably beautiful and adventurous half-Puerto Rican waitress, just a tad over 20 years old, and her love for Schmidt, and the torrid sex between them, ripen him and open the possibility that he will become a freer and wiser man.”

Yes, very nice, and maybe that is the case for some. But I think not for Schmidt, at least in the light of the previous experiences of Eros that Begley gives to the Schmidt-of-the-novel before his wife died. That did nothing for Schmidt then and it is even less likely that it will do much of anything for the Schmidt-of-the-film either.

Eros cannot solve the problems of the two Schmidts, or if she can, she will do so only superficially and never for very long. Eventually, the problems will resurface in all their maddening desperation.


American Sucker

The current economic crisis (What is it, anyway? A short-term crisis? A long term recession? The start of a major depression? Something even worse? Does any one really know?) has reminded me of American Sucker, David Denby’s account of his stock market woes during the last time we had an economic meltdown.

Like countless other stock market investors, Denby, who writes very fine film reviews for The New Yorker, lost a bundle in the market when the “bubble” began to collapse in March of 2000. It is depressing to read Denby’s account of his experiences during the ensuing period. It is even more so when it is framed against the disintegration of his family after his wife leaves him and he tries to care for their two boys and maintain a home for them. The experience tears him up.

American Sucker is also about the people (Henry Blodgett, Sam Waiskal, etc) who he met during the boom and how they let him down, as well as his obsession with the rising market in spite of all that he knew and all that he had studied about comparable situations. There are passages of insight but there is nothing funny about any of them.

It became a “necessity” of sorts for him to profit from the boom, in order to collect sufficient funds to buy his wife’s share of their West Side apartment. Greed and desire got the better of him and so he hung on when the world around him was collapsing.

He was aware of all that too. He knew what was happening. He knew how to extricate himself. Still he kept making mistakes, kept up the hope for the turnaround that never came. We all did. Hope can be so destructive.

I found it interesting to compare his experience with mine. The boom never became an obsession with me as it had with him. More than anything it was a lot of fun. How could it not be with those daily ten-point jumps in Qualcomm and the morning call each day from my guy on Wall Street?

It became somewhat disappointing as the bottom fell out of the market. But that was only because I, along with most everyone else, had formed unrealistic expectations. They vanished very quickly, mostly because I wasn’t hung up on winning big and had profited more than enough, actually far more than I deserved, if one can speak of making money that way.

Denby is well read. In this book about financial and personal collapse he writes about Aristotle, Veblen, the Greenspan logic, and economic theory. He asks good questions, fundamental ones. He learned from the experience. We all did or think we did.

He is cognizant of the danger of dismissing bad news, how easy it is to become blind to evidence contrary to your own views, or to ignore the tell tale signs of corporate hanky-panky.

And so the bubble burst. It was amusing to recall those days, those heady days that come, if you are lucky, once in a lifetime. The current market collapse is different, of course, more troubling and far more widespread. But again there have been the unrealistic expectations, investor and corporate manipulations, and outrageous acts of executive greed. I am not sure we have learned all that much since the last time the bubble burst.

A few of Denby’s remarks about the experiences he describes in American Sucker follow. Some seem as relevant today as they did nine years ago:

For I had already lost something of incomparable value—not a possession but the center of my life…

Obsession leads not to satisfaction but to more obsession.

The sane approach to life, I told myself, was to find something that you were good at, something that gave you pleasure and was useful to others, and then discover a way to make a decent living out of it.

But if they were bored or stymied, was it any wonder that they devoted themselves to clothes and furniture or household goods or cars and the rest? Consumerism was the displacement of exasperation. You might deplore it, but there was no reason not to regard it with sympathy.

And what hurts most of all is that I knew. I knew about the delusions, the tulpenwoerde, the South Sea disaster. I knew and was convinced that this time it was different….Hope and greed are such commanding emotions that I filtered, censored, and abolished what I didn’t want to hear…I listened again to those I wanted to listen to.

People have now lost a lot of money. They can say I made a mistake, I lost a lot or they can say, Somebody fucked me. It’s much easier to say the latter.

It was a bubble. This is just the way that markets behave and the way people behave.

The system seemed to work, but the precariousness of it stunned me.


About Schmidt: A Review in Real Time

Most commentaries on books occur after they have been read. And they usually tend to focus on the meaning of the story, the way it is written, and perhaps other works by the author. Surely there must be other ways to review a work of literature.

As far as I can tell few reviews describe the reactions of the reader while the book is being read or how their reactions change as the story unfolds. In this way, a review becomes more of a recollection, an interpretation rather than a description of the reading experience itself.

A few years ago I read Louis Begley’s novel About Schmidt. I had admired Begley’s first two novels Wartime Lies and The Man Who Was Late and regularly looked forward to his next book. However, there must have been something about About Schmidt that troubled or annoyed me for I was led me to express my reactions while I was in the process of reading it. Here is what I wrote over the course of that period.

No one told me that one could not write about being lost in a fog.
Louis Begley

I am reading Louis Begley's novel About Schmidt. There's nothing special about it. No romance. No real drama. Few, if any, heavy weight moral issues. Just a long, languorous chronicle of one man's last lap.

The man, Schmidt, well he is my age, a retired lawyer, who achieved some degree of fame and financial security. I think he did much love his wife. Schmidt graduated from Harvard, was a senior partner in a distinguished Manhattan law firm (Aren't all Manhattan law firm's distinguished?) had a large apartment on Park Avenue and a lovely family home in Southhampton on Long Island. All the usual upper crust stuff.

But Schmidt's wife has just died and so now he is at loose ends. Their only child, a daughter, is about to be married to a young man in the firm, a man who is Jewish and is not much appreciated by Schmidt. What father ever really likes the man who takes away his daughter?

He goes from day to day trying to find things to do. He sells the Park Avenue apartment, moves out to the Southhampton, but is not content there. So he decides to give his daughter the lovely family home on Long Island as a wedding gift.

The book works its way back to his past, where it lingers a while, dwelling on a few causal indiscretions.

Schmidt cannot go back to the office. His friends no longer belong to his club in the city. He doesn't golf. Doesn't seem to read much more than junk. He is not a happy man.

And as I read, page after page of this tale, I find it more and more enjoyable. I don't know why. Nothing is happening. He is going nowhere. Maybe that's the theme that keeps me going. It does ring a bell.

His life has changed. It is coming to an end. What is a man to do who loses so much, almost everything, in a relatively short span of time--his profession, his wife and his daughter? Is it time to close up shop or to make some effort to carve out a new life? Is one even possible?

But now I am growing weary with this story. Schmidt, whose life and personality had seemed so interesting has taken up with a woman. A woman without culture or refinement. A woman not much beyond 20. A woman who flaunts her body. Here we go again. His long days and endless nights of solitude are over. It also becomes clear he is a bit of an anti-Semite. But I will stick it out for a while, hoping he will get back on the track of existential despair.

And as I read further, I begin to see this tale in a new light. Schmidt continues his affair with the woman. It goes on and on. But where can it possibly go?

It is what it does to him that interests me. It turns him away from his world, his life, himself. It diverts him from the real dilemmas that he faces now. The woman leads him away from those issues-- issues whose resolution might enable him to extract whatever meaning is left in his life. It puts off the inevitable. The confrontation with himself, his days, his endless days until there are no more. It annoys me that Schmidt does not see this. And so the book has come alive for me again.

The story is over now. What a relief. The ending is unsatisfactory. All the questions remain unanswered. All the difficult problems sidestepped. He continues with the girl. I remind you that she was 20 and he was thrice that and then some. It is a mystery, a miracle. Yet, I seem to see it everywhere now.

She says she loves him deeply. That is very touching. He inherits another bundle from his stepmother and decides to move to her enormous home in Palm Beach. I was wondering if he might shoot himself.


Revolutionary Road

Richard Yates’ novel Revolutionary Road and the recent film version of the same name are interchangeable. The film is just as difficult to watch as the book is to read. Frank and April Wheeler live in a suburb outside New York during the 50s. They have two children, several unfulfilled dreams, and one conflict after another.

Their story is widely seen as yet another critique of life in the suburbs. But it is just as much, if not more so, about the trap that marriage can become regardless of where it occurs--suburbs, city, farm or village. In either place, lives become stuck, hopes are abandoned, and marriage becomes little else but a war zone.

In writing about the film Stephanie Zacharek (Salon.com 12/25/08) says “…the people stuck living these lives tend to either shriek at one another or silently, stoned on their own resentment. We’ve seen this sort of thing in movies and in literature over and over again, done well and done badly.” I think Yates, as well as Sam Mendes the director of the film, do it as well as anyone.

In another review of the film James Berardinelli writes astutely: “A lot of marriages are like this, with many of the fundamental problems not having changed in 50 years. Too many unions begun with hope and optimism degenerate into stale existences with two disconnected individuals living under the same roof. Today many such couples divorce. In 1955, divorce was less common, so husbands and wives would argue and find ways to make temporary peace. It’s unfair to claim that the happy suburban family was (or is) an illusion, but the reality is not as perfect as the illusion.”

And in revisiting the Yates novel, James Wood writes in The New Yorker (12/15/08) that the novel is yet another familiar critique of the suburbs. Again, I think the story is much more general than that. Indeed, Yates agrees in saying that he intended the novel to be “an indictment of American life in the nineteen-fifties.” And later he wrote “I meant the title to suggest that the revolutionary road of 1776 had come to something very much like a dead end in the Fifties.” Have the deeper aspects of life in this country moved much beyond that, more than fifty years later?

Wood claims that the “Yates suburban life, with its dreary drunken rituals and stolid neighbors, along with the Yateses’ frequent marital fighting” provided the material for Revolutionary Road. And later that “Yates was playing a morbid joke on himself when he created Frank Wheeler, because Frank is Yates without the writing…”

Many reviewers make claims that the stories authors write reflects their own life, that their fictional tales are in many ways autobiographical. I always find such assertions irrelevant to the appreciation of the story. I say “So what? The story stands alone independently of any conjectures about the writer’s life.

I have selected the following passages from the several I made note of while reading Revolutionary Road. I believe they will convey the intensity of the story and the spirit that Yates brought to its telling.

…larger absurdities of deadly dull jobs in the city and deadly dull homes in the suburbs. Economic circumstance might force you go live in this environment, but the important thing was to keep from being contaminated. The important thing, always, was to remember who you were.

What the hell kind of a life was this? What in God’s name was the point or the meaning or the purpose of a life like this?

The black kitchen window gave him a vivid reflection of his face, round and full of weakness, and he stared at it with loathing.

…an enormous, obscene delusion—this idea that people have to resign from real life and “settle down” when they have families.

…is it any wonder all the men end up emasculated? Because that is what happens; that is that’s reflected in all this bleating about “adjustment” and “security” and “togetherness…

…the hopeless emptiness of everything in this country.

…ordinary Sunday-evening sadness.

What is any spring but a mindless rearrangement of cells in the crust of the spinning earth as it floats in endless circuit of its sun? What is the sun itself but one of a billion insensible stars forever going nowhere into nothingness?

The hell with “love” anyway, and with every other phony, time-wasting, half-assed emotion in the world.

The house looked very neat and white as it emerged through the green and yellow leaves; it was such a bad house after all. It looked…like a place where people lived—a place where the difficult, intricate process of living could sometimes give rise to incredible harmonies of happiness and sometimes to near-tragic disorder, as well as to ludicrous minor interludes…



Those who study social influence have learned that it is sometimes much more effective to use modest rather than strong pressures to change a person’s behavior. The well-known foot-in-the-door technique is an example. Obtaining a person’s agreement to carry out a small request first is more effective in gaining their subsequent compliance to a large request than asking them for a large request first.

Other research has shown that a person’s interest in pursuing an intrinsically enjoyable 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. In a word, deliberate attempts 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 a lasting change.

The studies by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein reviewed in their recent book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness are consistent with these findings. They report that very subtle, almost undetectable alterations in the environment can exert considerable influence on behavior.

Placing an image of a fly on the urinals of the men's room at the Amsterdam airport reduced “spilling” on floor by 80 percent.

In a cafeteria replacing the large tables that seat many people with small, tables for two led people to eat less. This nudge is based on research indicating the amount of food people eat in a restaurant increases as of the number of people at the table increases.

And when the high calorie deserts (pies & cakes) are placed well back in the desert section of the cafeteria or in another line, they are chosen less often than the low calorie deserts (fruit) that are placed in the front. A simple rearrangement of many food items like this is said to increase or decrease their consumption by “as much as 25%.”

A vending machine that uses the traffic light system to label various food options reduced the selection of junk food items (soda & chips) by 5% when users learned there was a five cent surcharge for those marked with a red light. In contrast, sales of the green light items increased by more than 16%.

When the parking spaces in the city of Florence, Italy were reduced in size so that they accommodated a car about the size of the Smart, there was a sharp reduction in the number of large sedans, utility vehicles, and trucks that entered the central city.

Providing feedback to a highway driver about how fast they are driving by posting a large miles-per-hour roadway monitor tends to reduce speeding behavior. Providing moment-to-moment feedback to a homeowner about the cost of energy they are consuming tends to reduce their consumption. When this feedback is adjusted for time-of-day rates, further reductions in usage occur.

In a word, a simple redesign of the normal environment or the use of very low-key, often unobtrusive, techniques can often play a powerful role in changing behavior.

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

---Samuel Taylor Coleridge


Weekend Links

From time to time I would like to post some of the blogs and articles that I've enjoyed during the week. Here are a few for this week:

On Chekhov:


People Reading:


Power of the Situation

Subtle Influence

Tennis & Age

Visiting Tolstoy

The Film Revolutionary Road

Weekend Treats


First of All

Kenneth O. Hanson was a Professor of English and Humanities at Reed College in Portland Oregon where I taught for many years. I didn’t know him well but I was aware of his dedication to teaching and his students throughout the thirty-two years he was at the College.

I also knew that each summer he traveled to Greece which he apparently discovered in 1963 and where he moved to permanently after retiring from the faculty. I was relatively unfamiliar with his poetry, but there is one poem that he wrote that is among my favorites. I have framed one of the few linocut impressions made of it and it always hangs on the wall in the room where I have my desk.

The poem, First of All, conveys much of what I have tried to describe elsewhere in my search for a place. In both Hanson’s and my case, place refers to a geographical and community setting where one feels at home. Hanson found his home in Greece.

Others have found find it in the writing they do as Jhumpa Lahiri has: "I never felt that I had any claim to any place in the world. But, but in my writing, I've found my home, really, in a very basic sense — in a way that I never had one growing up."

Or in books and walking in the woods, as Patrick Kurp, author of the blog Anecdotal Evidence, has: “Most days, I can feel at home in two places -- among books, in a library or shop, and walking in woods and fields. In these settings I know equilibrium, which should not be confused with anything so grand as happiness, contentment or security.”

Or in the very search for a place itself as Zadie Smith suggests: “Our endless and impossible journey towards home is in fact our home.”

In First of All Hanson describes what he is looking for in this search and what it is like in the place where he found his home. The poem is shown as it does in impression that I have framed.

First of All Kenneth O. Hanson

First of all it is necessary
to find yourself a country
--which is not easy.
It takes much looking
after which you must be lucky.
There must be rocks and water
and a sky that is willing
to take itself for granted
without being overbearing.
There should be fresh fish
in the harbor, fresh bread
in the local stores.
The people should know
how to suffer without
being unhappy, and how to be happy
without feeling guilty. The men
should be named Dimitrios
Costa, John or Evangelos
The newspapers should always
lie, which gives you something
to think about. There should be
great gods in the background
and on all the mountaintops.
There should be lesser gods
in the fields, and nymphs
about all the cool fountains
The past should be always
somewhere in the distance
not taken to seriously
but there always giving perspective.
The present should consist of the seven
days of the week forever.
The music should be broken-hearted
without being self-indulgent.
It should be difficult to sing.
Even the birds in the trees should
work for a dangerous living.
When it rains there should be
no doubt about it. The people
should be hard to govern
and not know how to queue up.
They should come from the villages
and go out to sea, and go back
to the villages. There should be
no word in their language
for self-pity. They should
be farmers and sailors, with only
a few poets. The olive trees
and the orange trees and the cypress
will change your life, the rocks
and the lies and the gods
and the strict music. If you go there
you should be prepared to leave
at a moment’s notice, knowing
after all you have been somewhere.



A friend writes me from time to time about her beloved Kindle. Of course it didn’t take long for her to order the “new and improved” version, the Kindle2. Today she informs me that it is now possible to receive The New Yorker wirelessly on the new Kindle. At $2.99 a month, that’s a bargain compared to the weekly newsstand price. And the fact that is sent early each Monday allows a reader on a remote island in the Pacific to receive it eons before it is seen on the newsstand and several eons before a subscriber receives it in the mail.

I have resisted the Kindle ever since it appeared. There is, of course, my long history of reading the printed page with the covers of the book held between my hands. However, I imagine in time one could get used to the new routine, leaving open the question of how long that would take.

I had always assumed it was impossible to place marks in the margin or its Kindle equivalent next to the noteworthy passages a reader might want to record. This was the central concern I had about every ebook. And I had also assumed it was impossible to save the passages so marked and then eventually transfer them to a Word document on a computer so that they might subsequently added to the reader’s commonplace book.

I have now been duly informed I was wrong on both counts. It appears that it is not only possible but rather than the cumbersome process I imagined it to be, it is, in fact, unbelievably simple. At least, that is what my friend says and that is what is confirmed in the Kindle2 manual.

In response to my doubts, my friend writes: “Why is it cumbersome? It is better now because the manual says you can save starting from a single word and go from page to page (rather than having to start at the beginning of a line and start the highlighting over again on the next page). But it was never difficult—you just clicked to highlight a passage and then clicked when you reached the end of the passage. You just hook it up to the computer and copy the file. A lot easier than typing everything all over again.”

Well, it is true I spend a good deal of time typing the passages I mark in a book or periodical. I have rationalized this by saying it gives me a chance to review the passages and give them further thought. Of course, I could do that anyway, without having to spend all that time typing the passages on the keyboard.

And the Amazon website makes this quite clear: “By using the QWERTY keyboard, you can add annotations to text, just like you might write in the margins of a book. And because it is digital, you can edit, delete, and export your notes.” And that’s not all.

“Using the new 5-way controller, you can highlight and clip key passages and bookmark pages for future use. You'll never need to bookmark your last place in the book, because Kindle remembers for you and always opens to the last page you read.”

This is all pretty amazing. Can it be this simple? Does it really work so easily in practice? Can I ever get used to it? Understand that I am no longer a young, electronic wizard.

A couple of other features appeal to me. I understand there is a built-in dictionary. What a good idea. How often have you come across an unfamiliar word that you want learn its meaning? And how often has this happened while you are lying in bed with the dictionary on a bookshelf two floors below? At least, you thought it was there but come to think of it, you can’t be sure now. The word remains a mystery, unless you make note of it in some way and then remember to check the dictionary when you eventually find it somewhere downstairs.

Again, from the Kindle2 website: “The New Oxford American Dictionary with over 250,000 entries and definitions, so you can seamlessly look up the definitions of words without interrupting your reading. Come across a word you don't know? Simply move the cursor to it and the definition will automatically display at the bottom of the screen. Never fear a sesquipedalian word again--simply look it up and keep reading.” Another miracle of sorts.

Finally, the gadget offers wireless access to Wikipedia, a feature that is less interesting to me but I imagine can be useful in a pinch. Amazon informs me that: “With Kindle in hand, looking up people, places, events, and more has never been easier. It gives whole new meaning to the phrase walking encyclopedia.” Can you believe that?

To be sure, I do often have a question about someone or some book or some issue and more often then not Wikipedia gives me a provisional answer. Usually I go to the computer to get the information. Now I need never get up out of bed or leave my poolside lounge chair with “latest generation” of Amazon’s new super-thin, wireless, “reading device.”

In the old days we used to read books. Now we read, if we read, “reading devices.” What could possibly be next?


Effects of Literature

I return to the topic of reading. In my earlier post on How to Read a Book, I briefly mentioned Harold Bloom’s similarly titled How to Read and Why that is primarily composed of Bloom’s suggestions on how to benefit from reading some of the classic works of literature.

In the first chapter, Bloom claims that we read because the experience has a number of important and highly desirable effects on the individual reader. I think it is important to examine carefully these claims.

He suggests, for example, that reading imaginative literature alleviates loneliness. Elsewhere Toni Morrison expressed a similar view: “I was lonely for the company of those people in the book.” Does reading literature have this effect? I am dubious as I know of no direct evidence for this kind of influence.

In my case, enjoying the company of my literary friends is not the same as lessening my isolation or in any permanent fashion decreasing the loneliness that I sometimes feel. Yes, I learn that there are other individuals who sometimes think and feel the way I do.

While this is somewhat reassuring, still I know that it is a fictional world that provides this confirmation and it won’t be long before I will have to come to terms if not with loneliness, per se, the relatively solitary world in which I now live.

In several places Bloom suggests reading “is the search for a difficult pleasure” and that it is “the most healing of pleasures.” However, further on, a certain inconsistency creeps into this claim when he admits “You cannot directly improve anyone else's life by reading better or more deeply.”

To be sure, reading is a great pleasure, one of the finest. But is that experience therapeutic which I take what Bloom means by “healing?” Here there is some supporting evidence, although it consists of only a small number of studies that leave much to be desired in terms of methodology.

Reading poetry is claimed to be therapeutic by some investigators. Others have employed self-help manuals to alter a wide-variety of undesirable behaviors with findings that are at best mixed.

There are also a small number of laboratory studies on the effects of reading literature. But these studies employ artificially created reading materials that are specifically tailored for use in the laboratory and they seem quite unlike the ordinary reading experiences that Bloom, as well as most everyone else would like to know more about.

Finally there are a few quasi-experimental field studies that document the positive effects of reading well-known works of literature. If interested, I invite the reader to read a review (the last essay) of this issue that I wrote a while ago.

Bloom does not ignore the underlying quest for knowledge, “not just of ourselves and others, but of the ways things are.” And later he writes, “We read Shakespeare, Dante, Chaucer, Cervantes, Dickens, Proust, and all their peers because they more than enlarge life.”

But ultimately Bloom believes “We read to strengthen the self and to learn its authentic interests.” Absent any systematic research, at least that I am unaware of on these claims, each of us must ask if and to what extent that holds for us.

In my case, I know that literature has reaffirmed the interests that I have and the life it has led me to. And to that extent, it has certainly reinforced the confidence I have in this pursuit. Would I be saying this if I were unable to read literature? The question is tantalizing but impossible to answer.

Throughout this post, as well as others, I have asked for evidence relevant to the issue at hand. Is this question reasonable? Fair? Does it make sense to seek evidence for claims about how literature shapes an individual?

By training and background I am prone to ask questions like this. In time, empirical studies of these matters will develop. I know it exists in other areas of literary analysis that are not directly relevant to this one. The questions may be premature at this time but perhaps this will not be the case for long.


A Literary Education

In an essay in the June 16th, 2008 New Criterion Joseph Epstein discusses his literary education and why it drew him to the literary life he now leads. To a large extent this is reflected in the very fine essays he writes, as well as the fictional forays he makes from time to time.

Throughout this piece Epstein tries to identify what he learned from his literary education. In turn, while my literary education has been much briefer, I was led to ask the same question as I read his piece. Over the years, I have been continually surprised by what I have discovered.

In the most general sense, I now realize there are as many truths to be found in literature as in the psychological science I have been studying for most of my life. Indeed, in many respects literary truths tell me more about life, especially my life, than the more formal generalizations of psychology.

Literary truths hold for the individual. They make no claims on anyone beyond the reader who chances upon them in the books or essays they read. The truths of any single reader are usually quite different than the truths of any other reader. That is the wonderful thing about literature and the reason why it is such a gold mine of truths.

In writing about the work of social scientists Epstein expresses a somewhat similar view: “Scientists and social scientists claim to operate by induction, but there are grounds for thinking that they do not, not really; that instead they are testing hopefully, hunches, which they call hypotheses. But novelists and poets, if they are true to their craft, are not out to prove anything.”

And later: “One of the most important functions of literature in the current day is to cultivate a healthy distrust of the ideas thrown up by journalism and social science.”

This leaves open the question how and in what ways literature gives rise to this skepticism. For it was something I learned very early on in my own studies of social science, particularly from its methodology and mode of analysis.

Epstein reminds readers of Freud’s well-known claim that most of what he knew he learned from poets. I’ve always wondered exactly what Freud meant by this. To be sure his conjectures based on the Sophocles Oedipus Trilogy made him famous. But while he was clearly well read in the classics, my sense is that he learned far more from his patients than the writers whose work he admired.

In speaking of the truths to be found in literature Epstein writes that “James [Henry] felt that there were truths above the level of ideas, truths of the instincts, of the heart, of the soul, and these were truths that James, once he had attained to his literary mastery, attempted to plumb in his novels and stories.”

At the outset of his study of literature is Epstein hoped that the “thoughts of imaginary characters, the dramatization of large themes through carefully constructed plots, the portrayals of how the world works, really works---these were among the things that literature, carefully attended to, might one day help me to learn.” Epstein admits that a literary education is largely a private affair and that our real teachers are the books we happen to read.

He concludes: “So from the study of literature we learn that life is sad, comic, heroic, vicious, dignified, ridiculous, and endlessly amusing…” Not every writer can so readily translate his education into the life he leads, but Epstein is clearly one who has.

Can this be learned in other ways? In the end, I came to the conclusion that it wasn’t to be obtained in psychology. Many writers, perhaps not surprisingly, say it can only be learned through the study of literature. Here are the views of four who I admire.

Eliot Perlman: Fiction, at least some fiction, can also confront us with truths we might otherwise never have encountered. It can provide us with insights we would never have gained elsewhere.

Salman Rushdie: Its [literature] cultural importance derives…from its success in telling us things about ourselves that we hear from no other quarter.

Richard Ford: He liked novels because they dealt with the incommensurables in life, with the things that couldn’t be expressed another way.

John Updike: We look to fiction for images of reality—real life rendered as vicarious experience, with a circumstantial intimacy that more factual, explanatory accounts cannot quite supply.
John Updike


How To Read a Book

I read a book in a rather unusual way, at least when compared to most readers that I know and they are a dwindling number, indeed. Over the years, I have changed the routine a little and explored its implications in a recently published book, In the Country of Books. I’d like to tell you about it.

My comments will not be of the sort written by Harold Bloom, who I greatly admire, in his memorable volume How to Read a Book and Why, especially his remarks in the first chapter prior to his review and analysis of some well known works of literature. Instead, I want to describe the practice I employ in reading any printed matter, fiction, non-fiction, essay, or article.

When I come across a passage that seems memorable in some respect, I put a little mark in the margin or enclose the passage in parentheses. Then I write down on the end page of the document its page number. I do this for every one of the passages I have marked in this way.

When I have completed reading the material, I type each passage in a Word document on my computer, listed under the name of the author, title of the work and it source if it is from a periodical. These passages develop cumulatively over the year in, for example, the Passages I am starting to collect for 2009.

At the end of the year, I review the collection, correct any errors, and make a printed copy. Following this, I add the yearly collection to the growing hard copy volume and now electronic version that I have been compiling for many years.

From time to time I review the passages in particular books and cite them in something I am writing or, as in years past, my lectures to students. I also annotate some when I want to explore the ideas or issues they have led me to.

As a case in point, I recently read Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, Outliers: The Story of Success. I marked a goodly number of passages in this book, with additional notes to myself like “Look closely at this claim.” Most of the passages I marked in this volume were factual (or presumed factual) statements that Gladwell made about the individuals and conditions that gave rise to their extraordinary achievements.

Many were helpful to me in organizing a discussion with other readers of Outliers.
And when I write something about a book that I only dimly recall, the passages that I recorded help me to remember its contents and details about the theme I want to consider.

Doing all this has changed the nature of my reading experiences. More often than not reading tends to be a fairly passive process. We move rapidly from sentence to sentence, rarely stopping to mull over any single one. Marking those that seem notable for one reason or another slows reading down. It transforms it from a page turning exercise into an occasion to think further about the material. Rarely do we stop to think twice about a passage, or make note of it so that we can react to it sometime later. In my view, this is the real advantage of collecting notable passages. It deepens the reading experience, turns it into an engagement with issues, and a true educational experience.

Students often report that one of the greatest hurdles they face in getting started on their writing assignments is finding ideas to write about. Compiling a collection of topics and themes while they are reading might be valuable tool in overcoming this problem. A notebook in which they collect notable passages from the materials they read could easily be drawn upon for writing assignments and might also serve as a catalyst in developing ideas of their own. At least, this is the way it has worked for me.



I have admired the articles and books that Malcolm Gladwell has published ever since he began writing for the New Yorker. At first, I was deeply impressed by the way he wrote. He is a story-teller, a good one and is able to bring alive the abstract findings of large and important areas of social science. His essays in the New Yorker are entertaining, instructive, and more often than not, concern issues of consequence.

But as the years went by, I began to worry about their appeal. I began to ask What are the special responsibilities of a science writer, one whose work is widely read and much admired? Is it enough that he popularizes the science, in most cases, findings from social psychology that he writes about? Or does the popularity of his work also call for a more critical approach to the material?

As a social scientist with a good deal of applied research experience, I thought Gladwell often simplified issues that were far more complicated than he acknowledged. I worried about the studies that he didn’t talk about and the qualifications they would place upon his claims. I was troubled by his tendency to over-generalize, as I knew his claims did not apply as widely as he implied. And then most of his essays and books consist of a series of anecdotes or case studies with little in the way of analysis. A writer doesn’t create a very deep understanding of human behavior from a cascade of entertaining anecdotes.

This has been true of his previous books, The Tipping Point and Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking, as well as most recent work, Outliers: The Story of Success that at this time ranks Number 1 on the New York Times List of non-fiction best sellers where it is likely to remain their for the rest of the year.

In Outliers Gladwell proposes the five-factor theory of success. He never gives an explicit definition of success. But in a very general way, it is clear what he means by the examples of extraordinary achievement he discusses--Bill Gates, Robert Oppenheimer, The Beatles, etc. According to Gladwell, the factors responsible for success these and other extremely success individuals are Talent, Hard Work, Opportunities, Timing and Luck.

Neither factor alone is sufficient to guarantee success. Nor is success necessarily preceded by any single one. But Gladwell wants us to appreciate the powerful role that past experiences, family background, and cultural traditions play in determining success. At the same time, he wishes to counter the tendency in our society to overestimate the role of ambition, determination, and personality traits in accounting for these cases.

At a later point, I will discuss in detail this very entertaining book. Here I would simply like to point out that Gladwell commits one of the major inferential errors that I mentioned in blogging yesterday about Jerome Groopman’s How Doctors Think, namely the Confirmation Bias.

In every case of exceptional achievement that he treats, Gladwell cites exclusively evidence in support of his views. Nowhere does he mention instances that might raise doubt about his views or evidence that would limit their generality. Rather, he selects cases (almost always anecdotes) that conform to his claims. In this respect I find Outliers and almost everything else Gladwell has written quite misleading.

To mention briefly one example: In writing about the considerable advantage young Canadian hockey players have when they are born early in the year (they gain additional experience playing and practicing due the January 1st eligibility cutoff date for age-class hockey teams), he does not acknowledge that six of the thirty-three the players on the championship team he discusses were born in the later half of the year and, thus, are exceptions to the general claim he makes. How can their excellence in hockey be understood and would such an explanation provide an alternative account for the relationship Gladwell reports?

Recently someone asked me if in light of my concerns, I thought Outliers was worth reading. I really had to pause before answering. Yes, I said, it is surely worth it to Gladwell to write these kinds of books. And they are certainly very amusing and very well written. But unless a person approaches his works with a more critical eye, I would hesitate to recommend them.


Decision Making Errors

I was reminded of Jerome Groopman’s recent book, How Doctors Think, in blogging about medically trained writers yesterday. Groopman writes about the biases and errors that intrude on the decision making process of physicians. They occur far more often than is normally believed, sometimes with devastating consequences.

When I read the book, I was impressed by Groopman’s knowledge of recent cognitive research on heuristics and biases. His account is up-to date in all respects.

Some of the errors that physicians make can and do often occur to anyone. Groopman’s goal is to insure that when physicians shift from theoretical studies to practical applications, they are more mindful of the biases and uncertainty inherent in diagnosing patient illnesses.

He believes that overconfidence is one of the most common errors that physicians make, largely as result of their past diagnostic experiences. He writes: “You have to be prepared in your mind for the atypical and not so quickly reassure yourself, and your patient, that everything is okay.”

And later: “I learned from this to always hold back, to make sure that even when I think I have the answer, to generate a short list of alternatives. That simple strategy is one of the safeguards against cognitive errors.”

Taking issue with Malcolm Gladwell’s claims his wildly popular Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Groopman cautions about making snap diagnostic judgments based on intuition.

He writes: “Much has been made of the power of intuition, and certainly initial impressions formed in a flash can be correct. But…intuition has its perils. Cogent medical judgments meld first impressions—gestalt—with deliberate analysis.”

In addition to Overconfidence some of the common inferential errors that Groopman discusses include the following:

Representative Error: Your decision is too strongly influenced by a prototype “so you fail to consider possibilities that contradict the prototype and thus attribute the symptoms to the wrong cause.”

Confirmation Bias
: Your decision is based on attending to supporting evidence exclusively, ignoring or “minimizing data that contradict it.

Commission Error: “This is the tendency toward action rather than inaction.”

Availability Bias
: Reaching a decision on the basis of a recent, vivid or easily recalled situation that is unrepresentative of case under consideration.

Groopman suggests that “most misguided care results from a cascade of cognitive errors.” He urges physicians to avoid premature closure, indeed, to be ever mindful of alternative accounts and keep inquiring “What else could it be?”

Everyone could benefit from such advice. It bears repeating: “Be ever mindful of alternative accounts and keep inquiring.”


Doctors as Writers

I am often surprised to learn that a writer whose work I admire had been trained as a physician. I think of Somerset Maugham, Anton Chekhov, and Walker Percy. I’ll never forget reading Percy’s Moviegoer and then enjoying it just a much a few years ago when I read it again.

There are also more contemporary novelists like Ethan Canin, Rivka Galachen and Daniel Mason all of whom studied in medical school. Similarly, several well-known non-fiction writers such as Robert Coles, Oliver Sachs, and Theodore Dalrymple were trained as doctors.

Among my favorite New Yorker short story writers was Auturo Vivante whose romantic stories of Italian life entranced me in my earlier New Yorker days. One day I wrote him a letter to that effect and he even had the courtesy to reply.

And if you had the good fortune of reading Annals of Medicine who can ever forget the epidemiological “mysteries” that Berton Rouche wove? Although Rouche never formally studied medicine, you’d never know it from reading his memorable accounts.

And now the New Yorker has two eminent doctors—Dr. Jerome Groopman and Dr. Atul Gawande--on their staff who write brilliant essays about their medical experiences and recent advances in their science. Groopman recently wrote a deservedly popular and important book about medical decision-making titled How Doctors Think that I very much enjoyed and Gawade has also written two volumes that I’ve not yet read—Complications and Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance.

Why do so many doctors write so well? When asked a similar question, William Carlos Williams, who practiced medicine and wrote poetry throughout his life, replied:

"When they ask me, as of late they frequently do, how I have for so many years continued an equal interest in medicine and the poem, I reply that they amount for me to nearly the same thing."

When I think about this question I realize both medicine and literature are concerned with the individual, not generalizations that apply across a large number. Both disciplines focus on the individual in intimate detail—suffering, illness, personal crisis, birth and dying.

Kathryn Montgomery, a professor of literature, is quoted in a May 15th article in the Times as saying: “Doctors are storytellers. They spend all day long listening to stories and telling stories.”

Perhaps that is why there are so few, if any clinical psychologists who write novels. While they listen all day to stories, it is rare for them to tell one in return.

In a letter written in 1899 to a fellow physician in Moscow, Chekhov wrote: “I have no doubt that my involvement in medical science has had a strong influence on my literary activities; it significantly enlarged the scope of my observations and enriched me with knowledge whose true worth to a writer can be evaluated only by somebody who is himself a doctor…”

Finally, Theodore Dalrymple recently passed along the following advice to a group of resident doctors:

“I had only three pieces of advice to give: firstly, that they should continue in the hospital for a few more years, because human nature was concentrated and distilled there as if for the express purpose of training writers; secondly, that on no account should they consort with academics of the humanities departments of any university, for to do so was the primrose path to stylistic perdition; and finally, that they should read a great deal.”

“Read a great deal.” Good advice for anyone, regardless of the “primrose path” they have taken.


On Traveling

If I have trouble finding a book that captures my interest, it is usually because it doesn’t make contact with some aspect of my life—where I am, how I feel, a recent experience or whatever it is that I’m searching for. If I am in the mood to read something French or Russian I know exactly where to look. If I am at loose ends, I want a book that echoes and perhaps reflects on that experience.

But after reading Pascal Mercier’s Night Train to Lisbon last year, I’ve been having trouble finding much pleasure in any particular book. Mercier’s novel is an intellectual tour de force and I am always on the lookout for one of those, regardless of anything else.

However, I was recently and unexpectedly entertained by a very long short story, The Lover, by Damon Galgut in the latest Paris Review. The story is about a young man, whose name we never learn, who is at loose ends in South Africa. The tale depicts his wanderings from one place to another and then several more for the better part of what must have easily been a year. And since I am always wandering from one place to another, whether it be for somewhere to live or an idea to investigate, I found myself enjoying the story even though it seemed excessively repetitious.

In this tale the central character simply decides: “one morning to leave and gets on a bus that same night. He has it in mind to travel around for two weeks and then go back.”

His travels last far more than that. Galgut writes:

What is he looking for? He himself doesn’t know.

His life is unfocused and directionless, he has not made a home for himself.

…he thinks that he has lost the ability to love, people or places or things, most of all the person and place and thing that he is. Without love nothing has value, nothing can be made to matter very much.

Eventually he meets up with some other people and ambivalently decides to join them on their own unfocused wanderings. At certain times he leaves them. But soon thereafter he races after trying to join them once again.

He is continually uneasy, no matter where he is and who he is with, always uncertain about the idea and the value of traveling. After several months of what was to be a two-week excursion, he eventually returns to his home in South Africa, where he is soon overcome with a deep sense of apathy and once again at drift.

The story ends on what a philosophical note when the hero begins to question himself about the very nature of experience itself. Galgut describes his thoughts this way:

A journey is a gesture inscribed in space, it vanishes even as it is made. You go from one place to another place, and on to somewhere else again, and already behind you there is no trace that you were ever there.

…soon your presence, which felt so weighty and permanent, has completely gone. Things happen once only and are never repeated, never return. Except in memory.

Is the purpose of any trip primarily to collect memories? Does a trip even have to have a purpose? The experience itself is so fleeting. It starts and then it is over and what is left other than the memories that in time will fade or are transformed and then totally forgotten. Is it worth it? Of course, there are all those photos, but that isn’t why you went all that distance or incurred all those costs.

As far back as 1670, Pascal wrote in the Pensees: The sole cause of man's unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.

I remember Pascal’s words every time I consider traveling far from home and then, as I begin to imagine how much I’ll enjoy being there, I promptly ignore his wise consul and begin to make my plans. How much more sensible it would have been to have taken his advice more seriously and simply stayed at home to travel there on Goggle Earth.


Groundhog Day

February 2nd is the birthday of James Joyce. It is also the day I was born seventy two years ago. Joyce turns 127 today. He has a few years and far, far more talent on me. In Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man he wrote:

“I will tell you what I will do and what I will not do. I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use—silence, exile and cunning.”

And in the Oxford Book of Ages, the following passages were cited on the page for 72 years.

One virtue he had in perfection, which was prudence, too often the only one that is left us at seventy-two. Goldsmith, The Vicar of Wakefield

Nothing is more incumbent on the old, than to know when they shall get out of the way, and relinquish to younger successors the honours they can no longer earn, and the duties they can no longer perform. Thomas Jefferson. Letter to John Vaughan

Dear Miss Martineau,
I am seventy-two years of age, at which period there comes over one a shameful love of ease and repose, common to dogs, horses, clergymen and even to Edinburgh Reviewers. Then an idea comes across me sometimes that I am entitled to five or six years of quiet before I die.
Sydney Smith Dec 11, 1842

It is also Groundhog Day today. This is a good day to have been born. At least, I have a way to remember it. It appears that Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow early this morning indicating that an already harsh winter will last for yet another six weeks.

Over the years, I have collected a great many thoughts about Aging, one of the most frequent themes in my Commonplace Book. Here are a few:

The purpose of living is to get old enough to have something to say. But by that time, your voice doesn’t work and your hands won’t obey you so it’s tough as hell to find a way to say it all. M.F.K. Fisher

December’s come again, and the winter birds fly overhead. And I keep getting older.
Haruki Murakami

You’re only ripe for a moment. Life made more sense in the Middle Ages, when no one lasted past forty. Brian Morton Starting Out in the Evening

What is it that puts me outside? It is age. The wound of age. Philip Roth The Human Stain