Summer Break

I’ve been blogging for Marks In The Margin for over a year now and it’s time to take a summer break. Thanks for reading and for responding. You can still send me ideas or comments at rkatzev@teleport.com. I would enjoy hearing from you.


Weekend Links

What Happened?

Book Chat

Racy Novel for Students


Stages of E-Mail


Remaking Civilization


50 Best Summer Reads


Truth in Fiction

Fiction is better at “the truth” than a factual record. Why this should be so is a very large subject and one I don’t begin to understand. Doris Lessing

I would be less inclined to read fiction were it not for the truths I find there. These are truths that, as others have said, one rarely finds elsewhere. (Fiction, at least some fiction, can also confront us with truths we might otherwise never have encountered--Elliot Perlman). In trying to unravel Lessing’s puzzlement about the nature of literary truths, I have looked more closely at those truths I found in my Commonplace Book. These truths are for the most part propositions that fall into one of four general categories:

Conceptual Truth: A passage that reinforces a belief, value or moral conviction that I hold, often one that is not widely held and so its literary expression makes it especially noteworthy or is one that I have not thought about but calls for consideration.

Ian McEwan’s Saturday contains a great many passages of this kind. Throughout, McEwan speculates about the origins of human behavior and difficulties of identifying them with any precision. Here is one:

It’s a commonplace of parenting and modern genetics that parents have little or no influence on the characters of their children. You never know who you are going to get. Opportunities, health, prospects, accent, table manners—these might lie within your power to shape. But what really determines the sort of person who’s coming to live with you is which sperm finds which egg, how the cards in the two packs are chosen, then how they are shuffled, halved and spliced at the moment of recombination.

Personal Truth: A passage that reveals something about myself (or one that I had not recognized before), as well as a correspondence between some aspect of my life and a character in a story, most likely one that I identify with in some respect. Colm Toibin writes in The Master.

Everyone he knew carried with them the aura of another life which was half-secret and half-open, to be known about but not mentioned.….He remembered the shock when he first came to know Paris, the culture of easy duplicity, the sense he got of these men and women, watched over by the novelists, casually withholding what mattered to them most.

Hypothetical Truth: The passages in this group pose a question or put forward a hypothesis that seems original or usual in some respect, one that warrants inquiry or confirms a finding that I have read about before. In The Black Violin Maxence Fermine writes,

There is nothing worse than having been truly happy once in your life. From that moment on, everything makes you sad, even the most insignificant things.

Aesthetic Truth: A passage that has captured my attention or moved me deeply or is so well written that it has a certain quality that one can only call beautiful. Its truth consists in being true to real life or, as Seilmann & Larsen have pointed out, has the character of verisimilitude—the semblance of real life. Here is an example by Andre Aciman from Pensione Eolo,

That winter, when it was all over, I would walk or ride a bus past her building. Sometimes I’d think how lucky I’d been to have spent a year with her there and how gladly I would give everything I now had to be back with the same woman, staring out those windows whenever she went sulking into the other room, imagining and envying those strolling outside, never once suspecting that one day soon I might be a stroller, too, looking in envying the man I’d been there once, knowing all along, though that if I had to do it over again, I’d still end where I was, yearning for those days when I was living with a woman I had never loved and would never love but in whose home I had…invented a woman who, like me was neither here nor there.

The truths that I find in these passages, as in most of those in my Commonplace Book, may be uniquely true for me. That is the wonderful thing about literature: it makes no claims of universality, it does not intend to be not true or false in the way an empirical proposition is.

Rather we read ourselves into literature without concern, as we are in science, for whether or not the passage is true for others, and if so, for how many and to what degree. Instead, the truth of any given passage is immediately true for the reader because it corresponds to his or her experience or provides a language for it in a way that had not been available before. “Yes,” we say, “that is true for me. This is my story. That’s exactly the way I felt. Or I had not realized its truth until I saw it on the page.”


Fiction Therapy

Reading great works of literature is not often considered among the foremost sources of personal change. Yet many individuals say it was a book that changed the course of their life. Others put it more generally as Patrick Kurp has. “I’ve read thousands of books since I learned to read 50 years ago and that, certainly, has had a cumulative impact on my life – all that time I could have spent bowling or watching the History Channel …Books have helped populate my interior landscape, overhauled my imagination, buffered me against loneliness and despair, kept me amused, honed my critical faculties…”

Reports like this suggests that both practitioners and investigators of the behavior change process may be neglecting the very considerable influence that works of literature can have for individuals. To be sure, some attempts have been made to examine their clinical implications. One approach, with highly variable results, is known as bibliotherapy--the use of reading material (usually self-help manuals), whether imaginative or informational...to effect changes in alcoholism, obesity, and mild depression, etc.

The application of poetry, also with variable effects, has been employed in clinical situations. Reading a poem to an individual or group and then discussing its personal meaning is the most widely used poetry therapy technique. In addition, individuals are sometimes asked to write a poem on a subject the therapist believes would allow the patient to express more freely the issues to be resolved.

A few years ago, I chanced upon a Web site with a provocative hypothesis by Edward Santoro, a teacher of literature, who wrote, “Many years ago I was thinking seriously about a radical psychology (though I wasn’t calling it that) that would include fiction as therapy, quite similar to prescribing Prozac or Ritalin or whatever is the flavor of the day. If somebody is trying to work through a difficult issue, particular works of fiction could be prescribed, discussed, analyzed. This dialogue and the learning to think critically about a text would put a person into a better position of knowing the self and society and their interrelation. I thought and still do think this would be a successful therapy. The irony is that this is exactly what education is supposed to do. Years ago I was looking for books on just such a topic, and though there were a few, nothing really described what I had in mind."

Joseph Gold in Read for Your Life: Literature as a Life Support System illustrates precisely what Santoro was seeking. According to Gold, the literature can be therapeutic because in reading literary fiction or poetry “…you experience feelings, emotions, as well as thoughts and images. You see pictures in your mind and you have feelings associated with the pictures. …When you learn to do this, you can use your feelings about what you read to explore yourself, your relations, your attitudes to job, home, sex, children and parents, aging, death and religion, for example. There is a direct link between what you feel about stories and what you feel about everything else, especially about yourself.”

In one case study, Gold describes a woman who had been suffering from an extremely poor self-image that he attributed to a childhood characterized by a rejecting mother. Eventually Gold asked her to Daddy’s Girl by Charlotte Vale Allen, a novel that depicts a young girl growing up under somewhat similar conditions. Gold reports that for the first time the woman “felt some real energy and excitement at seeing her feelings described in print.” In turn, this led the woman to begin to redefine her early experience and move on to a more fulfilling life.

In another case study, Gold describes a student who came from a profoundly troubled home. After assigning her Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the student wrote to Gold: “What I admire about Connie Chatterley is her courage to be free, to do what she wants and to live her own life.” Sometime after Gold learned that this student had indeed taken charge of her own life by entering the Canadian Armed Forces flight-training program.

In Read For Your Life Gold recounts numerous applications of literary therapy in his practice, applications that he believes were directly associated with subsequent improvement in his clients. These apparent successes are largely due to Gold’s very considerable knowledge of literary fiction. Tailoring the reading material to the client’s emotional or cognitive needs is one of the critical requirements for a successful application of bibliotherapy. To be an effective as a bibliotherapist, a practitioner has to be well versed in both literature and clinical technique, a combination that is not often found among professionals in either discipline. It remains to be seen whether further applications of this approach will lead to the establishment of training programs to develop just such expertise.


Becoming Less & Less

Life made more sense in the Middle Ages, when no one lasted past forty.
Brian Morton Starting Out in the Evening

Philip Roth’s Exist Ghost, like his other recent books (The Dying Animal and Everyman) is a meditation on aging. In Exit Ghost, Nathan Zuckerman returns to New York from his solitary home on a mountain in New England, sans television, sans computer, sans telephone, although he does have a typewriter.

“I’d conquered the solitary’s way of life; I knew its tests and satisfactions and over time had shaped the scope of my needs to its limitations, long ago abandoning excitement, intimacy, adventure, and antagonisms in favor of quiet, steady, predictable contact with nature and reading and my work.”

In New York he confronts old age squarely in the person of Amy Bellette, the former mistress of his beloved mentor, also a cloistered writer, and Jamie, the young and beautiful writer, who along with her husband, will swap their West Side apartment for his isolated retreat for a year.

The once beautiful and charming Amy is now an old woman, an invalid who is recovering from brain surgery. Jamie’s allure draws him back to everything he thought he had left behind, an intimacy of the mind and body. “…a man who’d cut himself off from sustained human contact and its possibilities yielding to the illusion of starting again.” To paraphrase Roth, there is the desire still and the temptation aroused and the reality is agony.

Yet Zuckerman is 71 years old now and has recently had prostate surgery, leaving him both impotent and incontinent. “To possess control over one’s bladder—who among the whole and healthy ever considers the freedom that bestows or the anxious vulnerability its loss can impose on even the most confident among us.” Again, to paraphrase Roth, there is no virility, only the arousal and the anticipation.

Earlier in Everyman Roth had written that “Old age isn’t a battle; old age is a massacre.” No once has characterized aging more accurately; no one has described it so cogently.

In a longer passage from Everyman, Roth ruminates further about the experience of growing old, “He neither possessed the productive man’s male allure nor was capable of germinating the masculine joys, and he tried not to long for them too much. On his own he had felt for a while that the missing component would somehow return to make him inviolable once again and reaffirm his mastery, that the entitlement mistakenly severed would be restored and he could resume where he’d left off only a few years before. But now it appeared that like any number of the elderly, he was in the process of becoming less and less and would have to see his aimless days through to the end as no more than what he was—the aimless days and uncertain nights and the impotently putting up with the physical deterioration and the terminal sadness and the waiting and waiting for nothing. This is how it works out.”

Much of what Roth says is consistent with current medical research on aging. Atul Gawande summarizes this work in an article he wrote for the New Yorker in 2007. Gawande says, “The idea that living things shut down and not just wear down has received substantial support in the past decade.” Gawande continues, “…one too many joints are damaged, one too many arties calcify. There are no more backups. We wear down until we can’t wear down anymore. We just fall apart.” Echoing Morton in the passage at the start of this post, Gawande says that human beings are in a way like freaks who are living well beyond their appointed time.

Roth is now 75 and has been through some rough times recently. I am getting close and am not as fit as I once was either. So his tales of growing old, while depressing and grim, do confirm much of what I am either experiencing or surely about to experience. How bleak the prospect, how sad the inevitable.

Nor surprisingly, aging was one of the most frequent themes in the study that I undertook a few years ago of my Commonplace Book. Below are a few of the passages I collected in the books I had been reading up until the time of my review.

From now on, little by little, you must prepare yourself to face death. If you devote all of your future energy to living, you will not be able to dwell. You must begin to shift gears, a little at a time. Living and dying are, in a sense, things of equal value.
Haruki Murakami

For the first time he has a taste of what it will be like to be an old man, tired to the bone, without hopes, without desires, indifferent to the future.
J. M. Coetzee Disgrace

As he eased himself out of bed he reflected that survival was a mixed blessing. It involved surrendering that once young self to time, and time taught harsh lessons.
Anita Brookner Making Things Better

he didn’t mind death so much as dying.
Joseph Epstein Fabulous Small Jews

She’s probably no older than me. In fact, she’s my future—the wart, the walker, the wheelchair. As she came closer, he heard her mumbling.
Irving Yalom The Schopenhauer Cure


She Always Wears Black

My first job was in a bookstore. The store was called Martindale’s who along with his store and so many others is long gone. It was not your ordinary first job. To this day I can remember the smell of the new books and the distinctive scent they created in that relatively small space.

Even then I knew the books, knew their titles, and authors. I could tell people what they were about and, without much of effort, get them to buy the book, and then one or two others as well. I have utterly no idea how I was able to this, especially at that age, long before I had ever heard of “Literature.”

It was the young girl who worked with me that made that summer so unforgettable. Her name was N, the clever, sprightly N, now well known for her literary and cinematic wit. I had a blazing crush on her that summer at Martindale’s. Those who know N may be aware she is slightly cross-eyed. What young man could resist that?

And N could talk. She was clever, funny and bright. We spent all the time we were there bantering and jesting with one another. It is a mystery how we managed to get anything done or sell any books, or remember to give the proper change to those well-healed customers.

I am sure N has no recollection of me or our “brief encounter” at Martindale’s Bookstore or probably even working there. But every time I hear about her or see one of her films, I remember the summer of my very first job. Books, magazines, paperbacks, and the beautiful cross-eyed girl who talked with me. Her name is Nora Ephron and she is profiled by Ariel Levy in this week’s New Yorker.

Levy confirms everything we know about Nora. She is charming, talented, full of surprises and hilarious remarks. I am certain she is as much fun as she was when I knew her, ever so briefly. She not only writes film scripts (among them When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail, Heartburn, Silkwood, etc), she writes articles and essays, she blogs, cooks terrific meals, and knows everyone. Levy writes, “She can tell you who the doctor is for what you’ve got. She can tell you when to forget something, let it go. Where the best food is. Wheat the greatest new idea for cooking this or that is. She knows.”

I’ve always imaged Nora much like Meg Ryan’s depiction of Sally. And Levy, who knows her well, says much the same, “When Ephron knows that she knows something, or knows that she wants something, she does not hesitate to say so. She is like Meg Ryan’s character in When Harry Met Sally. I just want it the way I want it, Sally tells Harry, about her habit of ordering, say a piece of apple pie a la mode with the ice cream on the side, strawberry instead of vanilla if it’s an option, and, if it’s not, then whipped cream, but only if its real.”

Nora was raised by her screen writing parents in Los Angeles. She says the tone of the household was upbeat and that it felt like growing up in a sitcom. When they became “unglued” as Levy puts it, Nora almost shrugged it off. She told Levy, “I’m very into denial.” And later, “I don’t mean that you can’t have your feelings hurt or that you can’t sit at home and feel sorry for yourself—briefly…But then I think you have to just start typing and do the next thing.”

Levy says and I couldn’t agree more that her essays and articles are “vivid and cunning and crackling with her personality.” In one of her essays in I Feel Bad about My Neck, she says “Sometimes I think that not having to worry about your hair anymore is the secret upside of death.”

Many people seem to be intimated by her. Levy quotes Meryl Streep as saying, “She always wears black and she’s so cool and she always has the perfect bon mot to toss off just effortlessly. I mean, who can be like that?” No doubt Ephron feels much the same about Streep.

I’ve thought about writing Ephron to remind her of our memorable affair at Martindale’s. But I haven’t been able to find her e-mail address or where to write her. In both cases, I first need to contact her agent. That isn’t very promising. So until I do, I will be more than content to remember our times together and enjoy reading her hilarious articles in the New Yorker. As Levy notes early in her profile, “People need sarcasm, Ephron seems to think, but they also need fairy tales.”


The Higher Yearning

If you based your notions on academic life from some of the recent movies (Elegy, The Squid and the Whale, One True Thing, etc.), you’d think that most professors slept with their students. This is especially true of teachers in literature departments; you don’t often see professors in the scientific disciplines following suit. As one not far from the academic fray, I can report the “reality” depicted in the cinema is nothing but a myth.

Nevertheless, there is some truth to this academic stereotype, one that I became aware of gradually over the years, as I developed very close friendships with some of my students. It is one that is intimate, but in this case it is an intimacy of the mind. In his essay, Love on Campus, in the Summer 2007 American Scholar William Deresiewicz writes eloquently about what is often a fairly intense intimacy between a student and professor.

“..the good teacher raises in students a burning desire for his or her approval and attention….The professor ignites these feelings just by standing in front of a classroom talking about Shakespeare or anthropology or physics, but the fruits of the mind are that sweet, and intellect has the power to call forth new forces of the soul. Students will sometimes mistake this earthquake for sexual attraction, and the foolish or inexperienced or cynical instructor will exploit that confusion for his or her own gratification.”

While it didn’t change my relationship with students once I recognized the power of this situation, I realized the time a student is in college is a critical period, one not unlike the critical period in which all forms of animal life form an attachment to a parent or a surrogate parent. Who does not remember their favorite professor, the one who has to this day exerted a powerful influence on their life? No doubt there is more than one.

Deresiewitcz reminds us that all this was known to Plato who, in the Symposium, described the powerful attraction Socrates had on his students. “This is why, for the Greeks, the teacher’s relationship with the child was regarded as more valuable and more intimate than the parents. Your parents bring you into nature but your teacher brings you into culture.”

In my own teaching I eventually came to see that I was at my best when I was helping students realize things they might have already known or, if not known, find a way to discover them in the exchanges we had with one another. And in the process of doing this, I learned that teaching, as Deresiewicz says, is “about relationships. It is mentorship, not instruction.”

Perhaps that’s because I taught at a small liberal arts college, where the classes were small and where teaching often involved tutorial sessions on a weekly basis that, at times, went on for hours. I suspect at the larger universities, where teaching is largely synonymous with lecturing, the kind of intense intimacy this form of instruction develops is far less likely to occur.

In his essay Deresiewicz treats at length the inability of our culture to understand these ideas. “Can there be a culture that is less equipped than our to receive these ideas?” He argues that we simply don’t have the necessary vocabulary to comprehend, let alone accept this kind of intimacy.

This point interests me less, than the reality of the experience itself, the way in which a professor can become a student’s muse. As one of Deresiewicz’s students says, “I wanted to have brain sex with him.” In the vast majority of cases then, the real attraction between students has little to do with their bodies but far more with their minds.

In her essay, The Higher Yearning, published in Harpers a few years ago, Cristina Nehring goes even further claiming, “Teacher-student chemistry is what sparks much of the best work that goes on at universities, today as always. It need not be reckless; it need not be realized. It need not even be articulated, or mutual. In most cases, in fact, it is none of these. In most cases, academic eros works from behind the scenes. It lingers behind the curtain and ensures that the production on state is strong. It ensures that the work in the classroom is charged, ambitious, and vigorous.”

The intimate bond between teacher and student may often last a lifetime. Deresiewicz concludes, “…the feelings we have for the teachers or students who have meant to most to us, like those we have for long-lost friends, never go away, even when the two are no longer together.”


Weekend Links

Is Marriage Passe?

New Yorker Book Critic Drums

Getting Back to the Classics

Theory of Time

Summer Science Reading

Out of Town Tales


Month in the Sun

The molten sun beat down mercilessly. The hot, slow afternoon was a furnace. The parks lay green and motionless. Pavements shimmered like burning lakes.

When I arrived in Florence that summer, I was overwhelmed by the incredible warmth in the air and the prospect of days of bright, sunny days in the 90s. I had not experienced such days in months, maybe years. Early in the morning I stepped outside on to the street to find myself engulfed by warm air and bright sunlight.

I had to stop for a moment to take account of what this was. What it was was blissful. I had forgotten it still existed. And then the questioning began. Does it only exist here? Isn’t there a place like this closer to home? I’ve been yearning for this all year and now I was in its midst.

It galvanized me into a frenzy of work that I’ve not known in years. Others wilt or find the heat oppressive; I flourish in it, especially when I’m in Italy. Robert Penn Warren once said that he liked to write in a foreign country “where the language is not your own and you are forced into yourself in a special way.” A Paris Review interviewer asked Tobias Wolff: “You’re just back from seven months in Rome. Why were you there?” Wolff replies in a similar vein:

I had no immediate reason for going. It wasn’t to do research. I speak some Italian, but living in a country where I can’t be completely aware of what people are saying around me puts this sort of bubble around the head, in which, for a time, not indefinitely, I find I’m able to work with more than the usual concentration and joy.

In Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer Nathan, the aspiring writer asks Lonoff, his literary idol: “How would you live now, if you had your way?” Lonoff replies, “I would live in a villa outside Florence.” Nathan then asks: “Yes with whom?” “A woman of course.” Clearly that is the solution—live with a beautiful Italian woman who can translate the Italian essays and articles I cannot read here

The Parco Delle Cascine is an enormous park on the western edge of Florence that stretches along the Arno for miles. Over the years I have gone there often, first as a runner, then as a walker, and now as a sunbather. I marvel at how few people I usually see in the Cascine. It is surely because the park is so vast and so heavily treed that the people are simply hidden in between the bushes and shrubs and down the long pathways that traverse the park from one end to the other.

A few miles into the park there is a public swimming pool, the Publico Piscina where I have been going of late. It is far from luxurious; I am reluctant to shower there. But it is the sun and surrounded by lovely tall trees and open fields. On day I realize that the sun that shines on the sunbathers at the Publico Piscina is the very same one that shines on the beautiful people by the pool at the Splendido in Portofino.

As I prepare to return home, I am once again reminded that we are what our situations hand us. In Florence it is warm; at home it is cold. In Florence it is quiet; at home it is “noisy.” I am a different person in Florence. I am turned upside down mostly by the warmth that seems in some strange way to be remarkably therapeutic. Each time I go there I realize how much difference the temperature and light can make, how much they seem to matter to me, how noticeable they are. I feel more at home here than anywhere else.

In the final analysis, however, Florence can only be for me much like Andre Aciman said Illiers was for Proust.

Illiers itself was simply a place where the young Proust dreamed of a better life to come. But, because the dream never came true, he had learned to love instead the place where the dream was born.


Catastrophe in the Works?

Last week the US House of Representatives passed a bill requiring mandatory ceilings on the gases linked to global warming. It was the first time either chamber of Congress had approved a bill with clear targets, albeit modest, and crammed with concessions (“something for everyone”) for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

In his Times column this Monday, the recent Nobel Laureate in Economics, Paul Krugman, called the debate on the bill and its subsequent passage “treason against the planet.” He argues that never before in the history of this planet has it changed faster than even the pessimists expected—“ice caps are shrinking, arid zones spreading, at a tarrying rate.” He notes that researchers who had predicted about a 4 degree temperature increase by the end of this century are now predicting a rise of more than 9 degrees as global greenhouse gas emissions are rising faster than expected.

His views echo those of James Hansen NASA’s leading (and controversial) climate investigator who is profiled by Elizabeth Kolbert in last week’s New Yorker. According to Kolbert, Hansen has concluded on the basis of his own and the observations of other scientists that “the threat of global warming is greater than even he had had suspected. Carbon dioxide isn’t just approaching dangerous levels; it is already there.”

And like Krugman, Hansen asserts that the companies that are pumping greenhouses gases into the atmosphere “should be tried for high crimes against humanity and nature” for spreading false and misleading information about global warming. It is clear, he argues that “carbon dioxide is being pumped into the air some ten thousand times faster than natural weather processes can remove it”

When Hansen began to realize how serious the problem was, he thought, like most everyone else that getting this information out in front of the policy makers and government officials would be so clear and overwhelming that action would be taken to reduce greenhouse gases. This is the usual assumption about social and individual change: get the information out and change will occur. Of course that rarely happens and in this case was, as Hansen and others now recognize, naïve.

Even the visual images of what is happening to the planet don’t work. Who has not seen images of those massive sheets of ice melting in Antarctica? Or pictures of the Arctic ice cap which, according to Kolbert, “have been melting at a shocking rate; the extent of the summer ice is now only a little more than half of what it was just forty years ago.”

What is it going to take to deal what many consider a major emergency? Hansen believes there are three steps than we can begin to take to confront this problem head-on.

First, he argues for a moratorium on any new coal plants and a phase out of existing ones over the next twenty years. (Kolbert writes that coal now provides half of the electricity produced in the United States and in China it is estimated to be eighty percent). Hansen says, “There’s enough carbon in the ground to really cook us. Coal is my worst nightmare.”

Second, he suggests that reforestation if practiced on a massive scale could begin to greatly reduce global CO2 levels.

Third, he argues that the notion of a cap-and-trade system is a sham. (The centerpiece of the recently passed House bill is a cap-and-trade program!) “What is required, he insists, is a direct tax on carbon emissions.”

Taking these steps is technically feasible. But “it requires us to take action promptly.” Easier said than done, of course, as we have been observing for years. Usually it takes a major catastrophe for significant change to take place in this country. Will this scenario be played out once again as the Senate considers the House bill on reducing greenhouse gas emissions? Hansen believes “The science is clear. This is our one chance.”


Workplace Learning

It is generally assumed that intelligence in the broadest sense is closely associated with formal education—the longer you have been in school and the more varied your studies, the more intelligent you will be. In the latest issue of the American Scholar (Summer 2009) Mike Rose, author of The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker, takes a hard look at this assumption.

He begins by describing the multiple tasks that his mother undertook in the many years she worked as a waitress in a restaurant. He spent hours observing what she did and came to appreciate how much her work, as well as the working habits of other blue-collar workers, involves both body and brains.

His mother learned to “work smart and make every move count.” Rose says, “Her tip depended on how well she responded to these needs, and so she became adept at reading social cues and managing feelings, both the customers’ and her own.” And while she quit school in the seventh grade and never returned, Rose gradually began to see that in those mundane and repetitive tasks, she was always learning something new.

He reached the same conclusion in watching one of his mother’s brothers, who also left school early, supervising a factory paint-and-body department. “The floor was loud—in some places deafening—and when I turned a corner or opened a door, the smell of chemicals knocked my head off. The work was repetitive and taxing, and the pace was inhumane.”

Still Rose says the factory work provided his uncle a setting wasn’t a school, but rather a factory where he was constantly learning. It came from a flurry of tasks that demanded his attention and both mental and physical resources, “keeping a number of ongoing events in his mind, returning to whatever task had been interrupted, and maintaining a cool head under the pressure of grueling production schedules.”

As a result, Rose claims his uncle was learning other more general elements of the automobile industry, “the technological and social dynamics of the shop floor, the machinery and production processes, and the basis of paint chemistry and of plating and baking.” And while he was becoming skillful in different ways of thinking and analyzing than one usually acquires in a classroom, the fundamental learning process was much the same.

Rose describes other blue collar and service jobs that require equally varied skills. The use of tools by a plumber, for example, “requires the studied refinement of stance, grip, balance, and fine-motor skills. But manipulating tools is intimately tired to knowledge of what a particular instrument can do in a particular situation and do better than other similar tools.”

They also require knowledge of mathematics (“numbers are rife in most workplaces”), planning, and problem solving. Everyday jobs may look mindless to an observer but they are so for the performer. Rose persuasively argues that we are wrong to think of everyday work as a task carried out without abstract thinking or diverse forms of intelligence.

His fine grain study of the components of so-called routine tasks reveals they are anything but routine. When looked at closely it they are cognitively complex and demand diverse intelligences. Rose concludes that our biases and stereotypes about workplace activities have blinded us to the “remarkable coordination of words, numbers, and drawings required to initiate and direct action.”