Reading in the News

Book a Day
How long does it take you to read a book? Can you read one in a day? Nina Sankovitch says she can and has just completed a year of reading 365 of them. She claims she read the novel, The Elegance of the Hedgehog in a day. I recall it took me the better part of a week, perhaps more. I don’t know how she does it. Not only that, but she has also posted a daily review of each of the books she’s read on her blog. She says: To read a great book is a gift. A gift from the author to me, and when I pass that book on, it is the best kind of re-gift, a sharing of pleasure and joy and knowledge to the reader who receives it. Read more…

Amazon has recently given more than 200 college students its Kindle loaded with digital textbooks required in fall semester courses. Students have mixed views about the device. Some miss the ease of highlighting text and making notes in the margins. A student at Arizona State tried typing notes on the Kindle’s small keyboard but found the notes were unreadable when she went back to review them. She commented, I like the aspect of writing something down on paper and having it be so easy and just kind of writing whatever comes to my mind. Read more…

Free Newspapers
The Times reports that newspaper readership in this country continues to decline. The latest figures indicate that weekday newspaper sales are down more than 10% since last year. Much of this decrease appears to be due to rising Internet readership, the current recession, and newspaper price increases. The French with their usual √©lan have come up with a novel solution to this problem. They are offering young (18-24) readers) a free subscription to a newspaper of their choice. Read more…

Brain and e-Books
Is there a difference in learning and retention, to say nothing of motivation to read further between paper books and e-books? In my view these are the central questions that stand in need of investigation. Nowadays these questions are framed in terms of how the brain processes the two modes of presentation and the neural pathways that may be activated in each mode. Neuroscience investigators are far from agreeing on the matter. Read more…

End of Reading
In an interview with Tina Brown, former editor of The New Yorker, Philip Roth predicts that reading novels will virtually disappear in the next twenty-five years and that those who continue to do so will constitute a “minority cult.” He says, the book can’t compete with the screen and “the concentration and focus required to read a novel is becoming less and less prevalent, as potential readers turn instead to computers or to television.” His remarks lead me to wonder if fiction readers ever comprised more than a minority of the population.

His views on the future of reading are not new. Nine years ago in a New Yorker profile, he said: “Every year, seventy readers die and only two are replaced. That’s a very easy way to visual it. Readers means people who read serious books seriously and consistently. The evidence is everywhere that the literary era has come to an end.” Read more…


The Rising Tide of Neuroscience

In the October 13th New York Times, the Op-Ed Columnist, David Brooks writes about the latest trend in what used to be known as psychology, now more properly called social cognitive neuroscience. This field emerged a few years ago from the previous cognitive psychology revolution that overthrew the field’s previously dominant behavioral approach.

As a former psychology teacher, I wonder what has happened to the study of behavior and the role of environmental and situational factors in shaping behavior. It appears that students care less now about these factors than they do about what goes on in the brain when individuals act, think, see or feel.

Brooks describes some of the papers he heard at a recent conference of the Social and Affective Neuroscience Society. He comments that most of those who attended the meeting were “so damned young, hip and attractive.” I recall Thomas Kuhn’s claim that revolutions do not occur in science and by implication almost any discipline or institution until the members of the old school pass on and are replaced by the next generation of students.

At the meeting Brooks listened to a presentation in which subjects were shown images of menacing faces. People whose parents had low social status exhibited more activation in the amygdla (the busy little part of the brain involved in fear and emotion) than people from high-status families.

In another paper evidence was presented of the brain scans of Yankee and Red Sox fans as they watched highlights of one of their games. In a control condition neither group “reacted much to an Orioles-Blue Jays Game, but when they saw their own team doing well, brain regions called the central striatum and nucleus accumbens were activated. “ And so it went.

One wonders how investigators go about choosing what part of the brain to study in response the stimuli they present. Do they also measure other area of the brain to determine whether or not they are activated? In a letter to the Times, a person inquired if brain processes are the basis of the response that is measured or whether the response itself triggers the neurological event.

In his Op-Ed piece Brooks describes a study in which the anterior cingulate cortices in American and Chinese subjects were differentially activated when they saw members of their own group endure pain suggesting these effects may form the basis of prejudice. The writer of the Times letter asks,

Is the biochemical process the basis of prejudice or is prejudice the basis for a biochemical process taking place? To simply assume that a biochemical correlate of a social activity is its explanation is bad science…

Fortunately, there are still active groups of student/investigators who are equally committed to the situational analysis of behavior. One is from law and social psychology whose views are reflected on their blog known as The Situationist that is associated with the Project on Law and Mind Science at the Harvard Law School. In a description of this approach the authors of the Situationist write:

The situation” refers to causally significant features around us and within us that we do not notice or believe are relevant in explaining human behavior. “Situationism” is an approach that is deliberately attentive to the situation. It is informed by social science—particularly social psychology, social cognition, cognitive neuroscience and related fields—and the discoveries of market actors devoted to influencing consumer behavior—marketers, public relations experts, and the like.

If you read the blog and observe the breath of the topics that it treats on an almost daily basis, it will be clear that the study of the environment and the situation is far from moribund, nor is it confined to the young, hip, or necessarily attractive.


Fictional Readers

At the Guardian Book Blog Jon Varese writes about the reading experiences of fictional characters:

When I'm reading, nothing excites me more than the discovery of a character who's reading along with me. That character becomes, instantaneously, a kind of compatriot – a kindred spirit absorbed in the world of books, inside the book in my hands. Of course the discovery is even more delicious when the book that they're reading is something that I already know and love.

He mentions his favorites—the countless books Jane Eyre had read even by the age of ten; the 18th century novels that David Copperfield had read; and “who can ever forget Emma Bovary, that hopeless romantic whose doomed fate finds its roots in her reckless and irresponsible reading?”

I too have several favorites. There are those sections in Michael Ondaajte’s The English Patient where Almsay falls in love with Katherine as she is reading a story from Herodotus.

This is the story of how I fell in love with a woman who read me a specific story from Herodotus. I heard the words she spoke across the fire, never looking up, even when she teased her husband. Perhaps she was just reading it to him. Perhaps there was no ulterior motive in the section except for themselves. It was simply a story that had jarred her in its familiarity of situation. But a path suddenly revealed itself in real life. Even though she had not conceived it as the first errant step in any way. I am sure.

Or the scene in Ian McEwan’s Saturday where Henry’s daughter Daisy is reciting Mathew Arnold's Dover Beach:

Daisy recited a poem that cast a spell on one man. Perhaps any poem would have done the trick, and thrown the switch on a sudden mood change. Still, Baxter fell for the magic, he was transfixed by it, and he was reminded how much he wanted to live.…Some nineteenth-century poet….touched off in Baxter a yearning he could barely begin to define. Page 288

Or the earlier passage where McEwan describes how Henry felt about the books that Daisy had encouraged him to read?

Henry had read the whole of Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, two acknowledged masterpieces. At the cost of slowing his mental processes and many hours of his valuable time, he committed himself to the shifting intricacies of these sophisticated fairy stories. What did he grasp, after all? That adultery is understandable but wrong, that nineteenth-century women had a hard time of it, that Moscow and the Russian countryside and provincial France were once just so.

Then there is the delightful novel Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, by Dai Sijie. Perhaps you recall the story of the Chinese teenage boys who are sent to a remote mountainous area to be re-educated. One of them (Four Eyes) is reading Western books in secret which two of the boys (Luo and Ma) eventually steal. Luo takes one of the books, Balzac’s Ursule Mirouet, and begins reading. He finishes it quickly and shortly thereafter

…was seized with an idea: I would copy out my favourite passages from Ursule Mirouet, word for word. It was the first time in my life that I had felt any desires to copy sentences from a book. I ransacked the room for paper but all I could find was a few sheets of notepaper intended for letters to our parents. I decided I would write directly onto the inside of my sheepskin coat.

Finally, I recall Nilo Cruz’s Pulitzer Prize winning play Anna in the Tropics about a group of Cuban immigrants who work in a cigar-making factory in Florida. It was the tradition then for a person known as the lector to read books to the workers while they rolling the cigar paper. A new lector arrives and begins reading to them Anna Karenina. Anna in the Tropics is the story of the way the novel’s love affair begins to influence the life of Conchita, one of the workers in the factory.

Varese concludes his discussion of fictional readers with the question I regard as central to the act of reading:

What are the effects of reading? Not just upon fictional characters, but upon ourselves? This, to me, is one of the most fascinating reflections presented by the intersection of reader and text—testing the question whether a book can change your life, and whether that’s a good thing.


The Humanities Matter

In the latest American Scholar William Chace describes a disturbing downward trend in the number of students enrolled in English Departments, as well as other departments that study the Humanities. When I was teaching at Reed College, the English Department was always the most “popular.” There were years when Psychology ran neck and neck with English, but that was never for very long. And around the time I left the academic fray, the enrollments in the Biology Department were close to those in English.

Of course, this was at a liberal arts college where a common course in the Humanities is required of all entering students with an option to continue on in their sophomore year. But even when I left the college in the late nineties, I could see what lay ahead. When I began teaching at Reed, there were two students enrolled in the Economics Department and by the time I left, there were almost many Economic majors as there were in English. This is at a college where serious young individuals, even if a little quirky, come to study and where there are no courses in Business.

Yet Chace reports that the study of Business is now the most popular major in the nation’s colleges and universities. The figures say it all: In 1970/71 the percent of majors in English declined from 7.6 percent to 3.9 percent. In contrast, undergraduate majors in Business increased from 13.7 percent to 21.9 percent. Chace writes,

In one generation, then, the numbers of those majoring in the humanities dropped from a total of 30 percent to a total of less than 16 percent; during that same generation, business majors climbed from 14 percent to 22 percent.

There are really two questions: What are the causes for this sharp decline in English and the Humanities? And second, what can be done to redress it?

To be sure these trends parallel the apparent decline of reading in this country, the steady demise of one independent bookstore after another, and the rising tide of mobile phones, social networks, and various modes of electronic communication. We are no longer a people of the book, but rather one of the screen.

Chace notes there are several reasons for the decline but the fundamental one “is the failure of departments of English across the country to champion, with passion, the books they teach and to make a strong case to undergraduates that the knowledge of those books and the tradition in which they exist is a human good in and of itself.”

Pretty strong words, although they reflect those I often hear from others. I’ve not taken a course in an English Department and I have come to its subject matter through the back door so to speak. The love that I have for literature has nothing to do with critical studies or exotic theories of the text or its interpretation. Rather it is precisely for the very reasons Chace claims are missing from the current curriculum to say nothing of the great pleasure and truths that I gain from the reading experience itself.

Without a doubt, there is also the matter of the enormous cost of attending a private college where courses in English and the Humanities have always had their home. But there is still a place for instruction in these disciplines in the less costly public institutions that are primarily concerned in instruction in applied fields with direct economic payoff.

Chace suggests that to reverse the declining enrollments in the faculty must take pains to return to a more coherent curriculum and to the “rock-solid fact that [literature] can indeed amuse, delight, and educate.” He argues that courses in all the Humanistic disciplines should be taught in terms of the “intrinsic value of the works themselves, in all their range and multiplicity, as well-crafted and appealing artifacts of human wisdom.”

I concur: the courses in Humanities I was fortunate enough to take as an undergraduate continue to have an enormous impact on my life and on whatever understanding I have acquired about the world. I quote the writer, Orhan Pamuk: “I read a book one day and my whole life was changed.”


The Humbling

Simon Axler, the actor-protagonist of Philip Roth’s new book, The Humbling, recounts a dream to his therapist in which he is unable to perform his part while on stage in a drama. The therapist responds that this type of dream is one that every patient reports at one time or another.

When I read this, I wondered if Philip Roth was beginning to feel this way about his ability to write one fine novel after another. The Humbling is his twenty-sixth novel and his publisher reports two others are on the way. I was also reminded that the dream is one I occasionally have about being unable to deliver a lecture or guide a discussion in a class I am teaching.

Axler’s therapist also reports that another common dream is one in which you find yourself driving down a steep roadway and discovering your brakes don’t work. This too is a dream I sometimes have. Again, I wondered if that’s the way Roth was feeling about growing old—he is now seventy-six. I am close behind.

In The Humbling Simon Axler is coming to the end of the line of his distinguished acting career and at the age of sixty-three is not getting any younger either. He could no longer perform on the stage at least perform convincingly. Axler says, I always had a sneaking suspicion that I have no talent whatsoever. On the opening page Roth writes,

He'd lost it. The impulse was spent. He'd never failed in the theater, everything he had done had been strong and successful, and then the terrible thing happened: he couldn't act. Going onstage became agony. Instead of the certainty that he was going to be wonderful, he knew he was going to fail. It happened three times in a row. And by the last time nobody was interested, nobody came. He couldn't get over to the audience. His talent was dead.

The novel consists of three chapters. In the first, Into Thin Air, Axler’s acting wizardry disappears “into thin air” whereupon he commits himself a psychiatric hospital where he spends a month brooding without the slightest resolution of his predicament.

In the second chapter, The Transformation, a forty-year old lesbian bursts into his life, whereupon they have an exotic and extravagant sexual romp for a little over a year. The woman, Pegeen, is the daughter of long-time friends of Axler’s who strongly disapprove of the “wacky and ill advised” affair and bring a good deal of pressure on Pegeen to bring it to an end.

In the Third Chapter, The Last Act, she does just that by abruptly leaving Axler and telling him that for her it was an experiment in heterosexuality, a terrible mistake too. (Earlier in the novel Axler had predicted this very outcome. He believed he was seeing clearly into their future, yet he could do nothing to alter the prospect.) Pegeen says, “I wanted so much to see if I could do it.” But she can’t as she succumbs to the charms of a woman she and Alxer had picked up one night at a bar to engage in a “three-way debauchery.”

The novel ends with Axler holding a shotgun to his head. It had finally occurred to him to perform one last act as if he was in the theater, only this time it would not be make believe. Roth writes,

What could be more fitting? It would constitute his return to acting, and, preposterous, disgraced, feeble little being that he was, a lesbian’s thirteen-month mistake, it would take everything in him to get the job done. To succeed one last time to make the imagined real, he would have to pretend that the attic was a theater and that he was Konstantin Gavrilovich Treplev in the concluding act of The Seagull.

His body is discovered a week later by his cleaning woman. A note of eight words is found alongside him. It is the final line spoken in Chekhov’s play. “The fact is Konstantin Gavrilovich has shot himself.”

The Humbling is beautifully written. The dialogue between Pegeen and Axler is classic Roth--fast, smart, witty. And his depiction of Pegeen is wildly different than any of the women Roth usually writes about. Yes, she is young and Axler is old. Still their affair has none of the embarrassments and helplessness that Nathan Zuckerman experiences in his relationship with the young and exciting Jamie in Exit Ghost. Roth continues his astonishing string of masterful meditations on the “massacre” of aging and prospect of mortality.


An Education in Poker

The other day I chanced upon an article about a course on the literature of poker. I sent it to a very fine poker-player friend of mine, Shelly Brown, who works as a librarian at the Hawaii State Public Library in Honolulu. She very kindly accepted my invitation to write the following guest blog in response to the article by James McManus, adapted from his forthcoming book, “Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker”.

As a poker-playing librarian, even I am surprised James McManus is teaching a course on the literature of poker. Are there that many great books on poker? Are they enlightening, edifying, poetic or powerful? Is there even one great poker book?

McManus, who has actually written a very good poker book, "Positively Fifth Street," seems to believe that because influential, successful people such as Bill Gates, Obama, Truman and Eisenhower have cut their teeth, and sharpened their political tactics by playing the game, that we all should read literature about it.

If that is not enough to build a curriculum on, he points to the importance of poker strategy, the lexicon, the sheer risk-taking Americanness of the game. He tells us poker reflects who we are, and has helped shape our national character.

Those who follow poker a bit know McManus for both reaching the final table of the 2000 World Series of Poker (WSOP), and for being central in one of the most entertaining televised moments of the 2004 WSOP. His famous grouse, "You're disrespecting the game" toward the unconventional Elixx Powers is well-known by students of the game. The man has, so to speak, a chip on his shoulder about poker. He believes poker needs to be protected from infidels, legitimized by society, and professed to youth.

Powers, a once homeless and frequently destitute man, further mocked McManus, and with his unorthodox play, put McManus into a tailspin of "tilt" that was delightful to witness. McManus ended up calling a Powers' bluff with a ridiculous Queen high hand that gave Powers the pot and had him rolling with laughter.

Poker does not need to be prettied up and made respectable. It works in its own poetry of pleasure and pain. Those who thrive in it are rule-breaking, cut-throat geniuses. Yes, it is compelling, it is American, it is addictive, and it is merciless.

Should the literature of poker be studied? Is there a wealth of poker books our youth needs to glean lessons from? Looking at McManus' reading list it seems unlikely. Is "Streetcar Named Desire" really poker literature? Do "talking points" about famous people who play the game have anything to do with literature or poker?

If Kennedy raised Khrushchev’s bluff over the threat of a nuclear holocaust, shouldn't we study that in a course on poker and politics? Robert E. Lee used poker tactics to almost defeat the forces of the Union; let’s study poker and military strategy. If poker is the national card game, isn't that best examined within sociology or history?

McManus does in fact recommend expanding poker education, and this may be an even more suspect notion. He thinks poker may help students better understand the world from other's viewpoints. That it could be used in dispute resolution, as a tool for world peace perhaps. Do poker skills inspire one to work toward peace, love and understanding, or even fair play? Let's remember, the best poker player to inhabit the White House was Richard Nixon.


The New Yorker Festival

In May of 2000, The New Yorker magazine held a festival in New York to celebrate its 75th anniversary. Many of its well-known authors read from their work, some lectured, and others participated in panel discussions or gave interviews. The first New Yorker Festival was such a success that it has become an annual event. A few years ago, I was finally able to attend.

Think of it: the writers of a weekly magazine holding forth about their work during three full days of readings, lectures, and discussions. Outside academic society meetings, I can think of nothing else like it in this country, surely not by any other magazine or periodical. While the audience, which at times numbered in the hundreds, was largely from New York City, many individuals came from other places throughout the nation. I had traveled across the country from Oregon; one woman I met had come all the way from Honolulu.

What led me to travel so far, at some expense, to attend this Festival? More than anything, I think we came to make contact with a few of its talented contributors and to connect in some vague fashion with the community of readers and writers who recognize the unique and special value of the magazine. Many of its most notable contributors were present the year I attended. On Fiction Night, which opened the Festival, I had to choose between Anne Beattie and Richard Ford, or Michael Cunningham and Deborah Eisenberg, or Nick Hornby and Zadie Smith, or Lorrie Moore and Julian Barnes, and other pairs no less notable. The choice was impossible.

The following day was a concentrated display of brilliance. In one session John Lahr, the theatre critic of the magazine, spoke on Tennessee Williams and began by introducing Elizabeth Ashley, who has acted brilliantly many of Williams’s plays. Ashley read a passage from one with great gusto and animation. Then Lahr delivered an enthusiastic lecture for the better part of an hour on Williams' life and writing. He focused on Williams' fragmented and elusive self, the storms of depressions that dominated his life, and the sense of overwhelming loss present in all his work. Williams, he said, captured the modern spirit better than anyone else.

I moved on to one of the Festival’s highlights, a session on Literary Lawyers with Jeffrey Toobin, Louis Begley, Richard Posner, and Scott Turow. Toobin moderated the session brilliantly with wonderfully thoughtful questions. Turow responded with youthful intelligence, speaking about writing and his ongoing legal work. Posner, the scholarly judge and author who has written widely about topics ranging from literature to legal proceedings, commented with insight. Begley concluded quietly and wisely by drawing the audience back to historical novels where law plays a role--Dickens, Zola, Balzac, and even Plato. The participants agreed that these days, reality is often times more implausible than legal fiction.

David Remnick’s interview of Woody Allen was far and away the most popular event of the Festival. A huge room in the New York Public Library was used for the session. Woody ambled in and the crowd roared. He admitted he was not a scholar, saying he is just Woody. Everyone loves his modest, unassuming, and fun-loving self-deprecation. He is a natural at it and good at poking fun at much of modern life without annoying anyone. He loves to write, hates leaving his apartment, and doesn't care what people say about his work; he just needs to do it. Otherwise, he would collapse. Woody offered an interesting view of greatness: you do what you do, you do what you do best, and if others like it or think it's great, then that's fine. And if they don't, that's fine too. But you always have to do what you like to do and what you do naturally. Talent is a gift, not something you can try to attain. You can work at perfecting it, but first it has to be there.

The following day was no less impressive. At one session, Adam Gopnik interviewed Steve Martin. Once again, the session was mobbed. While Woody and Martin are wildly popular, they are funny in entirely different ways. Martin seems less personal, less instinctive. He tells more planned jokes than Woody, who just mumbles around most of the time. Martin spent some time talking about his painting collection, his progression from standup comedy routines to films, and now to writing. Along the way, there were good laughs and much good banter between him and Gopnik who is a wonderful writer in his own right. Martin noted that the most important thing in writing is clarity, as in comedy, where timing is also critical.

This year’s Festival has just concluded. Some of its highlights were:

Jhumpa Lahiri’s talk about the meaning of writing in her life.

In a discussion with Hilton Als, Tilda Swinton spoke about how difficult she finds acting.

Procrastination was the topic of James Surowiecki’s presentation.

The ever-present Malcolm Gladwell ended up talking about, yes, everything.

Dr. Atul Gawande’s lecture dealt with the critical importance of the checklist in medical practice.


Balloon Boy

AP - A homemade balloon aircraft floated away from a yard in Colorado after a 6-year-old boy was seen climbing in, setting off a frantic scramble by the military and law enforcement before the balloon slowly touched without the boy inside.

I happened to turn on the TV when the news came across that a balloon was drifting in the Colorado sky carrying a little boy in the basket. Instantly, I recalled the opening scene in Ian McEwan’s novel Enduring Love that I had first read as a short story in the New Yorker, followed by the novel, and later viewed as a film with Daniel Craig and Samantha Morton. Who could ever forget that opening scene?

The beginning is simple to mark. We see in sunlight under a turkey oak, partly protected from a strong, gusty wind. I was kneeling on the grass with a corkscrew in my hand, and Clarissa was passing me the bottle—a 1987 Daumas Gassac. This was the moment, this was the pinprick on the time map: I was stretching out my hand, and as the cool neck and the black foil touched my palm, we heard a man’s shout. We turned to look across the field and saw the danger. Next thing, I was running toward it…There was the shout again, and a child’s cry, enfeebled by the wind that roared in the tall trees long the hedgerows. I ran faster. And there, suddenly from different points around the field, four other men were converging the scene, running like me….What were we running toward a I don’t think any of us would ever know fully. But superficially the answer was a balloon….We were running toward a catastrophe, which itself was a kind of furnace in whose heat identities and fates would buckle into new shapes. At the base of the balloon was a basket in which there was a boy, and by the basket, clinging to a rope, was a man in need of help….

I wonder how many others had the same association? No one in the media yet, as far as I can tell or in any of the literary blogs I read. Do you recall the story? The opening incident, its outcome, the effect on the lover’s (Joe and Claire) relationship, and the subsequent ominous encounters with a man (Jed) who was also there in the field, pulling hard at the ropes to bring the balloon down. The novel and the film are as enduring as the opening scene and they have remained with me throughout the several years that have passed since I first read the excerpt in the New Yorker, then the novel, followed by viewing its film version a few years later.

In the afternoon I turned on the TV once again. At that very moment the “Breaking News” came across the screen that that the 6-year-old boy was found hiding in a cardboard box in his family's garage attic Thursday after being feared aboard a homemade helium balloon that hurtled 50 miles through the sky on live television. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Wolf Blitzer quite so happy.

Now in the morning there are concerns being expressed about the public costs of the saga (the Denver airport was closed while the balloon was cruising in the gusty winds across the Colorado sky and a large search party was formed to scour the area for the boy). And apparently the boy’s father had uttered something to the effect that “we did this for a show” so investigators will try to determine if the whole thing was a hoax, beginning by questioning the family that apparently has a history of public display (the boy’s mother and father had appeared on “Wife Swap”).

Still there is no word yet from Ian McEwan or discussion of the striking similarity to his work of fiction, or to the way in which there is often little distinction between fiction and reality. However, a few Tweeters have noticed the resemblance. “I wonder if Balloon Boy and his parents have read Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love? “Great book centered in a similar tragedy.” “Balloon Boy reminds me of Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love.”


Thought and Action

I don’t know why I did it. But today I can recognize that events back then were part of a lifelong pattern in which thinking and doing have either come together or failed to come together—I think I reach a conclusion, I turn the conclusion into a decision, and then I discover that acting on the decision is something else entirely, and that doing so may proceed from the decision, but then again it may not. Often enough in my life I have done things I had not decided to do.….I don’t mean to say that thinking and reaching decisions have no influence on behavior. But behavior does not merely enact whatever has already been thought through and decided. It has its own sources, and is my behavior, quite independently, just as my thoughts are my thoughts, and my decisions my decisions. From The Reader by Bernard Schlink

The British Psychological Society’s Research Blog asked some of the world’s “leading” psychologists to identity the “one nagging thing they still don’t understand about themselves.” Is there only one? Anyway some of the answers were rather interesting.

Ellen Langer said she still didn’t understand why she has nightmares almost every night. Richard Wiseman said he did understand why he sometimes said or thought witty or funny “things.” Chris McManus gave the answer I liked best. “What is this thing I call beauty?”

However, David Buss gave one I’ve thought a lot about at various times.

“One nagging thing that I still don’t understand about myself is why I often succumb to well-documented psychological biases, even though I’m acutely aware of these biases. One example is my failure at affective forecasting, such as believing that I will be happy for a long time after some accomplishment (e.g. publishing a new book), when in fact the happiness dissipates more quickly than anticipated. Another is succumbing to the male sexual overperception bias, misperceiving a woman’s friendliness as sexual interest. A third is undue optimism about how quickly I can complete work projects, despite many years of experience in underestimating the time actually required. One would think that explicit knowledge of these well-documented psychological biases and years of experience with them would allow a person to cognitively override the biases. But they don’t.”

Is it possible to overcome these psychological biases? You’d think so, especially once you become aware of them. But no, this doesn’t happen very often. I think this stems from a failure to recognize the sharp distinction between thoughts and actions.

Knowing something is one thing; acting upon it is another. Everyone who smokes knows the dangers of doing so. But that doesn’t stop them from lighting up every now and then.

It isn’t uncommon for individuals undergoing psychotherapy to know a great deal about the origins of their problems and various approaches in dealing with them. In spite of this knowledge, they find it impossible to do anything to overcome their maladies.

And Jonah Lehrer on his blog The Frontal Cortex writes about the limits of self-knowledge.

My own unfixable flaw concerns "paralysis by analysis," or thinking about decisions that I know shouldn't be consciously deliberated. Although I've written about Tim Wilson's work with strawberry jam, and know a bit about the information processing powers of the unconscious, I still find myself spending far too much time in the supermarket, debating the merits of various jams. It turns out that writing a book about decision-making doesn't make you a master decider - it simply allows you to have more precise names for your mistakes.

A few years ago I did an experiment on the effects of knowledge in changing behavior. I asked would knowledge of the Bystander Effect (The frequent failure of individuals to come to the aid of a distressed person) lead individuals to avoid this failure in the future?

In one condition, I gave the participants a great deal of information about the Bystander Effect, showed them a brief film about it, and asked them to write a short essay on the topic. In spite of this knowledge, these individuals were no more likely to come to the aid of a person who dropped a large box of books or was observed having a severe asthma attack than those in the control condition who were not given any information.

A lifetime of studying psychology has convinced me, that all too often we overestimate the influence of what we know on behavior. Instead, knowledge represents only one of the many factors that influence us, especially in situations where there are strong social pressures. In these situations, we may find it very difficult to translate our knowledge into action. Until we develop more effective ways to accomplish this, we must be careful not to overestimate the extent to which a psychologically informed public will behave any differently than an uninformed one.


A Happy Marriage

I have been trying to read A Happy Marriage: A Novel by Rafael Yglesias. Naturally, I was attracted by its title. A happy marriage? What is that like I wondered? Did you ever know anyone who said they had a happy marriage, at least one, that lasted more than a dozen years? I’ve read about a few, but never in a novel.

And then the rave reviews started coming in. Susan Issacs wrote in the Times Book Review, “A tour de force, touching and harrowing at the same time.” The book flap claimed the book is “both intimate and expansive…” Another Times review said it was, a "profound deliberation on the nature of love, marriage, and the process of dying." How could I resist?

And so I started reading. The story begins with Enrique’s effort to meet his wife-to-be, Margaret. It is agonizingly slow. A friend of Enrique’s is doing all he can to prevent their meeting. And yet when they finally do, Enrique stumbles over one hurdle after another. He is indecisive, anxious, clumsy, rather adolescent actually.

They finally meet and Enrique is smitten at once. He is taken with, “Margaret’s wet blue eyes, thin body, dainty movements, the way she flings her leg over a chair: Something happened inside Enrique like a guitar string suddenly unstrung. There was a shock and a vibration in his heart, a palpable break inside the cavity of his chest.” And so it goes.

The succeeding chapters alternative between their equally slow courtship and those where Yglesias describes Margaret’s awful battle with cancer “in pitiless minutiae.” Dinitia Smith writes in the Times, Seldom has there been in any novel such an unremitting depiction of the ravages of cancer.” It is grim and very difficult to read.

I put the novel down, placed it at the bottom of my stack of books, and mumbled something along the lines of “I can’t read this any more, the reviews not withstanding.” I wondered if something was wrong with me. How come I found so little in this novel that so many are raving about?

And then I read a review by David Meyers at The Commonplace Blog that made me feel I hadn’t gone off the deep end after all. Meyers writes: “Few books have disappointed me more than Rafael Yglesias’s novel A Happy Marriage. Its title raised my expectations to probably unreachable heights…It is touted by Scribner as an “achingly honest story about what it means for two people to spend a lifetime together—and what makes a happy marriage.” But it is none of that. It aches not; neither is it honest. And it is not about what makes a happy marriage.”

Although I have not finished the novel and am not sure if I will, I did early on find an important lesson for couples with few interests in common. Yglesias writes, “They had different tastes, and sometimes wanted different things from each other, and yet they had lived a happy life together…” Clearly there is far more to a close and long lasting marriage than shared interests.

When I read that passage in A Happy Marriage, I was reminded at once of how bewildered Woody Allen was that he and Mia Farrow remained together for as long as they did even though they had little in common.

“I could go on about our differences forever: She doesn't like the city and I adore it. She loves the country and I don't like it. She doesn't like sports at all and I love sports. She loves to eat in, early -- 5:30, 6 -- and I love to eat out, late. She likes simple, unpretentious restaurants; I like fancy places. She can't sleep with an air-conditioner on; I can only sleep with an air-conditioner on. …. She would love to take a boat down the Amazon or go up to Mount Kilimanjaro; I never want to go near those places. … She has raised nine children now with no trauma and has never owned a thermometer. I take my temperature every two hours in the course of the day."

One wonders to what extent A Happy Marriage is a novel. Every commentator points out how closely it mirrors the facts of Yglesias life—that he dropped out of high school to write a very successful first novel, had an affair with another woman, and gave everything he had to his wife while she was battling cancer. Myers remarks that the novel deals less with Margaret than with Yglesias himself. He concludes, “Margaret Joskow must have been an extraordinary woman, but from this novel the best you can do is to suppose so.”


Le Big Mac

There were several accounts on the Web last week about New York City’s new law on posting calorie counts in restaurant chains. A study tracked food choices at four fast-food chains—McDonalds, Wendy’s Burger King and Kentucky Friend Chicken—where customers were informed or the calorie content of food items.

The outcome of the study should not be surprising to anyone familiar with the long line of previous field studies of the effects on information on modifying behavior. Research as far back as the energy crisis of the 70s and 80s demonstrated over and over again that posting requests to save energy or informing people of their actual consumption with and without cost feedback did not turn them into energy conservers. Still we continue to rely on information techniques in trying to regulate or change behavior

Evidence from the recent study in New York found that about half the customers noticed the posted calories associated with particular items of food. About a quarter (28%) of those who noticed claimed the information had influenced what they ordered while almost 90% said it had led them to make less caloric choices

But when the investigators analyzed the receipts (during a four week test period), they found that slightly more calories were ordered than the subjects in the control condition that measured customer choices (during a two week baseline period) before the law went into effect—a common control condition in field studies.

The research was carried out in what were said to be “poor neighborhoods” where there are high rates of obesity. “One advocate of calorie posting suggested that low-income people were more interested in price than in calories.” I laughed when I read this knowing full well that while those more financially endowed are probably less concerned about price, they are just as likely as anyone else to ignore the information and let their taste buds or food preferences govern their choices.

Since information approaches are not costly and can be easily implemented, the more central issue is how to make them more effective. Simply posting information or passing out a leaflet doesn’t guarantee by any means that it will be translated into action. Several suggestions have been made on how to overcome this limitation.

• Vivid and highly concrete information should be employed. Instead of posting caloric values, show a symbol of a clogged artery.

• Take account of the motivation of the target population. If you are working in an area where price is important, offer an incentive, say a free burger for every nine ordered, as many coffee shops do for coffee purchases.

• Emphasize the trustworthiness of the message. Pair the information with respectable physician, hospital of government agency rather than McDonald’s or Burger King

• Make the information as personal as possible. Instead of posting the caloric information, arrange to have the manager hand out a colorful card with the same information to each patron with a few words of encouragement.

• Tailor the message to the target population of clients. Again, is price is crucial to the group, make sure to emphasize the incentives for choosing “healthy” items that will lead less costly future purchases, to say nothing future medical expenses.

Noon. Hunger the only thing
singing in my belly.
I walk through the blossoming cherry trees
on the library mall,
past the young couples coupling,
by the crazy fanatic
screaming doom and salvation
at a sensation-hungry crowd,
to the Lake Street McDonald's.
It is crowded, the lines long and sluggish.
I wait in the greasy air.
All around me people are eating—
the sizzle of conversation,
the salty odor of sweat,
the warm flesh pressing out of
hip huggers and halter tops...

The rest of the poem appears at http://poemhunter.blogspot.com/2007/05/you-cant-write-poem-about-mcdonalds.html


Fictional Friends

In Arlington Park, Rachel Cusk wrote about one of her women characters, “Never, never did she feel in life the sense of recognition, the companionship, the great warm fact of solidarity that she found between the covers of a book.”
In a strange way I have also come to know and befriend some of the people in the books I read. They are usually individuals who confront the same problems I do, have the same aspirations and cultural views that I have or would like to have if I was more sophisticated or better read. They are doing things I have done or dream about doing and they are doing them with greater depth and knowledge than I could ever hope to in my lifetime.

Moreover, I probably know some of my fictional friends better than my real ones. In How to Read and Why Harold Bloom wrote that one of the reasons we read is “Because you can know, intimately only a very few people, and perhaps you never know them at all. After reading The Magic Mountain you know Hans Castorp thoroughly, and he is greatly worth knowing.”

Do the fictional friendships we have bespeak of some kind of malady? Other perfectly normal readers seem to have the same kind of relationships. In So Many Books, So Little Time, Sara Nelson writes: “I talk about my books as if they were people, and I choose them the way I choose my friends; because somebody nice introduced us, because I like their looks, because the best of them turn out to be smart and funny and both surprising and inevitable at the same time.”

And Proust is said to have compared friendship to reading, because both activities involve communion with others. He also noted that reading had a key advantage: “In reading, friendship is suddenly brought back to its original purity. There is no false amiability with books. If we spend the evening with these friends, it is because we genuinely want to.”

In her introduction to Alice Munro’s short story, The Bear Came Over the Mountain Sarah, Sarah Polley commented that “…I have had a relationship with this story that has been a powerful and as transformative as any I have had with another human being.”

Polley’s expression is surely one most powerful and moving statements I have read about the effects of reading literature. She notes that “The Bear Came Over the Mountain entered my life when I was twenty-one years old. It crept right into me, had its way with me, and shifted my direction in ways I didn’t understand until years later.”

She was inspired by Munro’s story to adapt and direct a film version, Away From Her. Julie Christie stars as a woman suffering the early stages of Alzheimer’s that progresses further and further into darkness. Her husband of 44 years struggles not to lose her while she, in turn, drifts away. Polley says the story reshaped her idea of love and led her to a place that “I am very, very grateful to be.”



Today is National Poetry Day in England. We are informed that Britain is a poetry nation. Among other events, readers of the Guardian are asked to select their favorite poem.

I pondered this for a bit and then I recalled a beautiful poem my wife had calligraphed in orange ink and framed with an equally appropriate orange border that has been hanging on our wall for years.

I had always thought it was a poem from Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel as indicated at the bottom of the print. It certainly reads like one. But the citation is incorrect, as I have learned today. And it isn’t a poem. Instead, it is a combination of closely related passages from his Of Time and a River.

Nevertheless, I will post it here as it appears on the print. It does capture this time of the year, doesn’t it? And I will always regard as one of my favorite, yes poems.

October has come again—has come
again. The ripe, the golden month
has come again and in Virginia the
chinkapins are falling. Frost sharps
the middle music of the seasons and all things
living on earth turn home again. The bee bores
to the belly of the yellowed grape, the fly gets old
and fat and blue, he buzzes loud crawls slow,
creeps heavily to death, the sun goes down in blood
and pollen across the bronzed and mown fields of
old October. Come to us, Father, while the winds
howl in the darkness, for October has come again,
bring with it huge prophecies of death and life
and the great cargo of the men who will return.


Click of Recognition

I continue to be intrigued by the reasons individuals are drawn to literature, why literature seems to mean so much to dedicated readers. Of course, the question emerges from my own experience of feeling literary fiction plumbed human behavior more deeply than the research I was doing or teaching in psychology. I thought fiction captured those experiences of ordinary life that simply couldn’t be measured by psychological tools.

I am sure one of the reasons why individuals are so powerfully affected by literature is the feeling of “personal resonance” that occurs when reading a work of fiction. The sense of resonance occurs when a reader is reminded of an experience (s) from their past.
This is the theory of Uffe Seilman and Steen Larsen derived from their research on “remindings,” as they put it or some association between the text and an event in their life.

The link can occur because the reader was either a participant or an observer of a similar experience. Another way to express this is in terms of verisimilitude. This suggests that some readers are not necessarily concerned with the story’s truth or writing excellence or even the richness of its narrative, but rather with the degree to which it resembles some experience they have had. For these readers, if the story doesn’t ring true to anything they have encountered before, it isn’t likely they will enjoy it.

This view is similar to one expressed by the philosopher Susan K. Langer who suggested that: “The poets business is to create the appearance of experience, the semblance of events lived and felt, and to organize them so they constitute a purely and completely experienced reality, a piece of virtual life.”

A literary reminding, if you will, is never the same for readers of the same text. This is because the experience of each individual is never the same as any other. The recognitions that we find in literature, then, are unique for each reader. In addition, as Seilmann and Larsen acknowledge “…different readers--even with similar background and similar present circumstances—may react very differently to a give work…”

We also test a literary truth against our own experience. So in a way reading literary fiction is not that much different than doing science. Science tests its propositions against generalized (aggregate) human experience. Literature tests its truths against each individual reader’s experience.

Again, Susan K. Langer put it well: “The criterion of good art is its power to command one’s contemplation and reveal a feeling that one recognizes as real with the same click of recognition with which an artist knows that a form is true.”

It is the click of recognition, the remindings and the sense of personal resonance that drew me to literature. And I’m sure it is the same for many other readers too. As one of the participants in Changing Life Through Literature, an alternative sentencing program put it: “I started to see myself in him [ship captain in Jack London's Sea Wolf] and I didn't like what I saw."

(The Seilman and Larsen study (including their experimental test) Personal Resonance to Literature: A Study of Remindings while Reading appears in Poetics, 1989, Volume 18, pp 165-177.)


Literary Critics

In his blog on October 2nd, Patrick Kurp quotes the writer Dawn Powell,

“The new writers disdain human curiosity; they wish only to explore and describe their own psyches; they are too egotistical and snobbish to interest themselves in neighbors. The urge to write now is no longer the love of story-telling or even the love of applause for a neat turn or dramatic twist. It is the urge to show off, the author as hero is a big sex success and leaves them gasping. The book’s drive is only the desire to strip the writer’s remembered woes and wrongs and show his superiority to the reader – not to communicate with him or to entertain.”

And then Kurp comments:

Her words are a prophecy fulfilled. How often do we learn something from a contemporary novel or poem? When does fiction or poetry extend our knowledge of the world? When is a work of literature more than another act of solipsism?”

At the very least, I find both comments unkind generalizations. I mention them here because they reflect the views of several other literary critics that I read. They also imply a certain ridicule or contempt of the appreciation of arts by individuals with less background or knowledge of literary history and contemporary standards of judgment than they have

Contrary to Kurp’s view, I continue to learn a great deal from reading literature. I also do not share his views on the solipsistic nature of literary works—here I presume he means most modern novels. Similarly, I take issue with Powell’s views on the lack of human curiosity of “new writers.” Who is she talking about or who is Kurp talking about when they bemoan the quality of contemporary fiction or poetry?

I did not find Pascal Mercier’s novel Night Train to Lisbon, perhaps the most stimulating novel I’ve read in a while, lacking in curiosity. Quite the opposite, in fact. The questions posed throughout the novel, the characters and situations described are scarcely the work of a writer who “distains curiosity.” In my view, the works of Ian McEwan and Alice Munro, to name just two, fall into the same category. So do the novels of Michael Ondaatje or the short stories of William Trevor.

Are we not all entitled to our particular literary and artistic pleasures? Are there standards of literary excellence that meet with uniform approval, standards against which we can use to judge the value of the works we read? Some critics extend lavish praise on Proust, others find him impossible to read. I believe the same is true for almost every writer or poet most often mentioned among the finest.

Recently Michelle Obama delivered a lecture on the arts to an international audience at the Pittsburgh Creative Arts and Performance School. Her words on the importance of the arts speak eloquently of an appreciation of the richness of artistic expression and give pause to anyone who thinks it is no longer a source of knowledge or story telling pleasure. Here are a few excerpts from her remarks:

“We believe strongly that the arts aren't somehow an 'extra’ part of our national life, but instead we feel that the arts are at the heart of our national life. It is through our music, our literature, our art, drama and dance that we tell the story of our past and we express our hopes for the future. Our artists challenge our assumptions in ways that many cannot and do not. They expand our understandings, and push us to view our world in new and very unexpected ways…..

"It's through this constant exchange -- this process of taking and giving, this process of borrowing and creating -- that we learn from each other and we inspire each other. It is a form of diplomacy in which we can all take part….

"We want to show these young people that they have a place in our world, in our museums, our theaters, our concert halls.... We want them to experience the richness of our nation's cultural heritage, one on one, up close and personal, not on TV. We want to show them that they can have a future in the arts community -- whether it's a hobby, or a profession, or simply as an appreciative observer….

"In the end, those efforts, and the performances we're enjoying today, and the work these artists do every day here in America and around the world -- all of that reminds us of a simple truth: that both individually and collectively, we all have a stake in the arts, every single one of us.

"And you don't need to be rich or powerful to lift your voice in song or get out of your seat and shake your groove thing. [Laughter.] You don't need to be a Van Gogh to paint a picture, or a Maya Angelou to write a poem. You don't need a Grammy or an Oscar or an Emmy to make your work on the cultural life of your community or your country a valuable one.

"That is the power of the arts -- to remind us of what we each have to offer, and what we all have in common; to help us understand our history and imagine our future; to give us hope in the moments of struggle; and to bring us together when nothing else will.”


The Wisdom of Children

Like literature, films give me a place to locate myself. They bring to mind new ideas to tinker with, call into question others, and remind me of where I belong. Sometimes they console me and help me to get through my dormancy for a few hours. I am amazed at their power and the way they enter my life.

Sometimes I live with the characters on the screen for days and find it hard to get them out of my mind. There are moments when I imagine taking on their appearance and others when I begin emulate their behavior.

It took me more than a week to recover from the somber tone of In America in spite of the irrepressible joy and sparkle of its two little girls. Their indomitable spirit could not overcome the specter of death that hovered over their life. At the end Christy, an eleven year old, as beautiful and as perceptive a person as I have ever seen on film, asks you to try to forget, to try to forget the death of her brother, even though she knows that neither she nor you will ever be able to.

Christy narrates the story of her family’s emigration to America from Ireland. She tells it quietly and realistically. Her reticence is beguiling. We know she sees well beyond appearances; we know that mostly by her silences. Her quiet knowing manner as she tells her story is the only reason I went to see the film again. I wish there were more people like Christy. I wish I knew them too. One would be enough.

Now that I am a member of the discount demographic, I go to the cinema more than I care to admit. I feel somewhat like Susan Sontag who “At the end of her life, working hard, and often ill…went to the movies every day of the week.

Earlier this week I saw the Italian film Quiet Chaos. The film begins with the tragic and unexplained death of Pietro’s wife at their seaside summer villa. Pietro, an executive at a global media company, spends his days brooding on a bench at a small park just outside his 10 year old daughter’s school. He reads the paper, becomes familiar with the regulars, meets business colleagues, lunches at the local restaurant, and silently flirts with the beautiful woman who walks her dog each day. The days of mourning stretch into weeks.

Meanwhile his daughter Claudia, who seems immune from any sense of emotional loss, is at school across the way. One day her teacher introduces the class to the concept of a palindrome. The notion of reversibility captures Claudia’s interest.

As Christmas approaches, Pietro asks her what she wants for a gift. She ponders his question for a few days. Does she finally express her grief by asking for the return of her mother? Nothing at all like that. She wants her father to resume his life and return to work.

At times, I am startled by the wisdom and sensitivity of young children. Where do they learn to be so perceptive? How can we learn when to listen to them more closely? The scenes and individuals depicted In America and Quiet Chaos have stayed with me for days. I think often about the themes they explored and the way their characters confront the reality of life.

I am reminded that no less so than literature, the tales depicted in the cinema confirm the old Jewish proverb: “What is truer than the truth? A story.”


Kindle Smindle

I do not have a Kindle and remain uncertain if I will ever read a Kindle edition of a book. If I saw it or any other e-book as an improvement of reading experience, I would most assuredly. But I await such evidence before taking the plunge.

For evidence, I must rely upon the reports of friends who have the device or writers who have evaluated their own experience reading an e-book. Nicholson Baker, reports in The New Yorker, that his attempt to read books on the Kindle2 was thoroughly underwhelming. “I squeezed no new joy from these great books though.”

He downloaded several classic and contemporary novels and read of little of each one, but not more. The gray screen (“a greenish, sickly gray”) annoyed him and he says some readers claim the Kindle2 is harder to read than the Kindle1. It unsettled him that a Kindle book “dies with its’ possessor.” There’s no book to put on his shelf, even though it is surely overflowing with more than enough already. Baker reports that illustrations, tables and photographs are difficult to read on the Kindle’s relatively small gray screen.

The preservation of a book strikes me as extremely important matter. Jean-Francois Blanchette from the Department of Information Studies at U.C.L.A. takes up this issue in a letter to The New Yorker:

“Nicholson Baker’s excellent piece on the Kindle foregrounds a thorny issue in the shift from print to digital media—that of preservation). … Even more significant, what the preserved items will look like is unclear, as data formats, computing platforms, and reading devices ceaselessly morph into their next market-driven incarnations. Imagine if the only copy left of “Imaging in Oncology” were the Kindle version, with its garbled tables and lost color coding? Or, a more likely scenario, if several copies of the book existed in different formats, each with a different visual presentation? In each case, the authority and usefulness of the cultural and scientific record would be severely impaired.”

I read The New Yorker each week and the Times each day. Both can be read with a Kindle, as well. But the Kindle versions are not exact reproductions of the print editions. In the case of The New Yorker, I understand there are no advertisements, some of the cartoons are missing, and not every article is reproduced. Baker reports that much the same is true for the Times:

“The Kindle Times…lacks most of the print edition’s superb photography—and its subheads and call-outs and teasers, its spinnakered typographical elegance and variety, its browsabless, its Web-site links, its listed names of contributing reporters, and almost all captioned pie charts, diagrams, weather maps, crossword puzzles, summary sports, scores, financial data, and, of course, ads, for jewels, for swimsuits, for vacationlands, and for recently bailed-out investment firms.”

For Baker, the Kindle version of the Times is by no means a savior of the newspaper. Quite to the contrary, it kills the joy of reading it.

When I buy a book on Amazon, I often check to see if a Kindle version is available. More than half the time it isn’t. Baker’s experience is the same for books (at least 25) that he purchased recently for which there is no Kindle version. It all depends on what you like to read. If romance novels are your cup of tea, the Kindle will satisfy all your needs. If you prefer lofty works on abstruse philosophical and scientific issues, you are unlikely to find them at the Kindle store.

Finally, Baker managed to force himself to read a complete book (The Lincoln Lawyer) on the Kindle2. Clearly it was a struggle and done “out of a sense of duty.” He notes “It was like going from a Mini Cooper to a white 1982 Impala with blown shocks.”

Although he has a long history of reading printed books, my sense is that Baker tried to read a Kindle book with an open mind. But in his view it was by no means an improvement on a printed version and my hunch is that is also the case for other long time readers of his generation. Whether or not it will be true for younger individuals, who have grown up peering at small screens all day remains to be seen.