Questioning Frame of Mind

“All our knowledge results from questions, which is another way of saying that questioning is our most important intellectual tool.” Neil Postman

In addition to the role of question in works of fiction, I have noticed it is also a feature in the way individuals talk with one another. Some ask a great many questions, while others might ask one or two and, more commonly, none at all. I sense that questioning as a mode of conversation, indeed, as a way of thinking, may be a central personality dimension.

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

Katherine Mansfield was another writer who championed Chekhov precisely because he had no answers to the existential questions he poses. In a letter she sent to Virginia Woolf about Chekhov in 1919, she writes: “What the writer does is not so much solve the question but…put the question.” From the Introduction to Anton Chekhov’s About Love and Other Stories by Rosamund Bartlett

In contrast, other individuals seem more accepting of whatever it is they hear or read and tend to comment, if they say anything at all, with a “That is really interesting” or “It reminds me of this or that” or simply change the subject altogether. They are unlikely to express any doubts or seek clarification or evidence especially contrary evidence, relevant to the matter at hand.

Those of the questioning frame of mind use an approach not unlike that of a Socratic dialogue where conversation becomes a progression of questions designed to arrive at a conclusion beyond the originally stated position. Some people feel very comfortable with this kind of discussion. For them it becomes a truly joint exchange with the implicit goal of clarifying thinking and sharpening beliefs and perhaps even learning something along the way. In contrast, those of the accepting frame of mind do not fall naturally into this conversational mode and may find it difficult to talk with someone who does.

Questioning is also a critical element of the Jewish tradition. The Talmud, for example, is structured around a set of questions that are in turn answered by fresh questions. Responding to a question with another question is also a well-known Jewish practice.

“Asking questions is both the secret of science and the essence of the Talmud, the dialectic forming character of the Jewish people.” “The act of learning is the central pillar or backbone of Judaism.” Rabbi Adin Steinsalz

When questions are posed in a work of fiction, they are rarely answered, nor do they really have any clear-cut answers. But what the author does intentionally or not, is lead the reader to consider the questions and begin wondering about them. At least that’s what happens to me.

And when it does, I become more engaged with the text and begin to make all the associations that come with my experience and previous knowledge of the subject. I don’t rewrite the story, but may embellish it a bit. In a way, I join with the author who, with his questions, invites me to participate with him in telling the story. It is a highly desired reading experience.

“I tend to like questions that go unanswered in general because they invite me to think. And since there is no answer provided by the “expert” there is also no completely right or completely wrong response which gives me room to really think and possibly be wildly creative about it. That’s much more fun than being fenced in by someone else’s answers and then spending all my thinking time figuring out those answers don’t work for me…” Stefanie Hollmichel http://somanybooksblog.com


Questioning in Fiction

After reading Pascal Mercier’s Night Train to Lisbon I began to think more seriously about how writers use questions in fiction. Mercier’s novel has an enormous number of questions woven into the narrative that echo both the nature of its story and characters. In part that is probably because Peter Bieri (Pascal Mercier is his pen name) also conducts research and teaches philosophy in Germany.

“How are we to be happy without curiosity, without questions, doubt and arguments? Without joy in thinking?” Pascal Mercier Night Train to Lisbon

J. M. Coetzee is another writer whose fictional characters are frequent question-askers. Coetzee’s abundant use of questions in Youth, for example, is not only rhetorical, it is meant to amuse and entertain the reader. At least, that’s the way I reacted to their frequent appearance in a novel that is one of my recent favorites. They literally cascade page after page from the unnamed character’s musings.

For example, in the first three chapters (all relatively short) there are 16, 16, and 19 questions respectively. Each one or each sequence generally takes the following form:

“What are his true thoughts anyway? Some days he feels happy, even privileged, to be living with a beautiful woman…Other days he feels differently. Is the truth the happiness, the unhappiness, or the average of the two?

Is that what one has to do to become a professor of English: read the established authors and write a lecture on each? How many years of one’s life does that eat up? What does it do to one’s spirit?

If one is to be an artist, must one love women indiscriminately? Does an artist’s life entail sleeping with anyone and everyone, in the name of life? If one is finicky about sex is one rejecting life?
” J. M. Coetzee Youth

While novels embedded with questions are bound to appeal to me, questioning is not a critical feature of those I like most. I may enjoy that style of writing and tend to think that way myself, but it probably plays little if any role in my reading preferences.

Henry Perowne, the central character in Ian McEwan’s Saturday, a novel that is among my recent favorites, is depicted as a deeply reflective man who spends a good part of that day at least, wondering about a wide range of topics. But his reflections are rarely formulated as questions.

“Questions, ordinary inquisitiveness did not suit her at all. She never insisted on the answer to a question. She might ask once, and if there was no reply, then she would match the silence. There was a pleasing depth to her silence.”
Ian McEwan The Child in Time

It would be interesting to compare writers on this dimension. Do some employ questioning more than others and if so, what might be responsible for their practice? Do they come from a particular tradition or are they, like Peter Bieri, involved in a discipline where questioning is a common practice? Regardless, it reflects a style of writing that is one of probing and wrestling with ideas.

“She communicates largely by asking questions, not personal questions about his life or past history but questions about his opinions on topics ranging from the weather to the state of the world.” Paul Auster Sunset Park


Freud in China

“They don’t realize we are bringing them the plague.” Freud upon arriving in NY

I did most of my graduate work in the experimental psychology of learning and motivation, where I sought to test Freudian hypotheses in the laboratory. Like many beginning psychology students, Freud's analysis of mental processes appealed to me, as did the importance of early experience in his accounts of adult behavior.

Anxiety also played a central role in his theory of the neuroses and because I was young and beset with all the anxieties of youth, I was often preoccupied with the strenuous and usually unsuccessful effort to deal with it. What an excellent topic to study, I thought.

So, in the manner of a clinician, I set about to try to find a way to conquer anxiety. However, my dissertation was carried out in the laboratory, rather than the clinic. The research employed an animal model of human anxiety, an approach that was highly regarded at the time. In those days there was a good deal of interest on the part of clinicians in applying findings derived from animal models in therapeutic settings, a practice that has all but disappeared today.

It was against this background that I read Evan Osnos’ recent essay in The New Yorker on the introduction of psychoanalysis to China. While Freudian psychoanalytic theory and practice no longer exerts the influence it once did in this country, it seems to have become increasingly popular among the Chinese.

Apparently this is largely the result of the psychiatrist Elsie Snyder who according to Osnos, “…fell in love with the world of Sigmund Freud at a public library in the Bronx when she was fourteen….An hour of excavating the unconscious to her was like a string quartet, in which, as she put it recently, “one could hear all four instruments and all four melodies and how they fit together.”

While most therapists in this country have rejected the majority of psychoanalytic tenets, they still ring true to Snyder who, together with other American analysts, has been conducting psychoanalysis both in China and over the Web and Skype. Snyder says, “They’re [Chinese] are in love with psychoanalysis the way people my age were in love with it in New York in the fifties and sixties.” This makes perfect sense to me and may very well still be true for many young people when they are first introduced to Freud.

While the Chinese may find the concept of talking about their private troubles a refreshing alternative to “eating bitterness,” this approach is not without its detractors. Osnos cites the remarks of Frederic Crews:

“We have had a bad habit of dumping disapproved or dangerous materials—cigarettes, chloroflurocarbons, toxic components of old computers—on less developed countries without regard for the consequences. Will this be another instance, in the realm of psychological treatment.”….“Troubled people in China are entitled to get the best Western knowledge about their conditions.”

But what is the best Western knowledge about the practice of psychotherapy? A large number of well-controlled studies have indicated that almost all therapies have similar effects with very little difference between them. In addition, the effects are not large and sometimes indistinguishable from those of a placebo treatment.

We know that insight about a person’s problems, one of the fundamental Freudian assumptions, does little to overcome them. It may give a reasonable explanation of their origins but is only one of many steps required to eliminate them. And whatever effects such knowledge has, can also be achieved with other therapeutic approaches.

Therapies work because they establish a connection with another person, a connection that provides an opportunity to talk about conflicts and anxieties, worries and emotions. And it does so in a benign, accepting setting with someone who listens with concern and doesn’t take issue with what you say.

Psychoanalysis is one many situations like this and while it is reasonable to question its value, it does give a person, including those who live in China, a vocabulary for discussing whatever it is that ails them in a setting that, at least for now, may not otherwise be available.


The Unnamed

I am trying to imagine what Joshua Ferris had in mind when he decided to write his second novel, The Unnamed. I know I shouldn’t think about this, but still I wonder. The novel is about a man, Tim Farnsworth, who has what might be called a walking disorder. He is compelled to go on extremely long walks on desolate roads, unpredictably and uncontrollably.

The walks can occur any time, in the dead of a bitter winter for example, when he ends up exhausted in a park somewhere or by the doorstep of a suburban house far from his own home or office in New York. Eventually he calls his wife, Jane, who gets in the car and drives out to bring him back.

The compulsion has no name, no medical history, no one understands what produces it or how to treat it. One physician calls it, “benign idiopathic peramulation.” That doesn’t help much, does it?

Yet there was no precedent for what he suffered, and no proof of what qualified as a disease among the physicians and clinical investigators: a toxin, a pathogen, a genetic disorder. No evidence of any physical cause. No evidence, no precedent—and the experts could give no positive testimony.

Regardless, physical or mental or some random combination, Tim suffers from it as does his marriage, his relationship with his daughter and his job as a partner in a “high voltage” Manhattan law firm from which he is eventually forced to leave.

There are times when I am reading a novel when I fall into its mood and its words and the way they are put together, and when I begin to think and talk like the people in the story do. I mimic them in both spirit and tone. I think about my life from their perspective and take on their way of being. This happened to me while reading The Unnamed and I did nothing to push it away.

It is how I am sometimes affected by the characters in a film. I come out of the theater and I am one of them. It is a strange experience and while it never lasts long after a film, it tends to last quite a bit longer while reading a book, especially a lengthy one. Is this how we are influenced by the arts? Do their effects linger even when we aren’t aware of them? Perhaps we become the people in the book or the film in ways that are subtle and beyond our comprehension.

Tim’s walks during the winter are brutal. Night after night he is out in the cold, sometimes sleeping in the snow. He develops frostbite, loses a few toes and then some of his fingers. If he has lost or thrown away his cell phone, Jane has no idea where he is. Eventually, he is picked up by the police and taken to the emergency room of the nearest hospital.

Soon thereafter he stops calling Jane and surrenders to the compulsion to keep walking, once across the country, sleeping wherever he can. It is heartbreaking to see him fall from the peak of his profession to the depths of his sleeping bag in the snow.

What does it all mean? Does it have any kind of meaning? It certainly isn’t anything Tim Farnsworth or his creator talk much about. Reviewers are the only ones allowed to play the metaphor game. One suggests it is a metaphor for addiction, “for any compulsion that drives a man or a woman to leave family and community and health behind.” Perhaps so.

But I also see its meaning in terms of control, the uncontrollability of Tim’s affliction and a fair amount of what most of us are forced to deal with at some point in our life. Ferris writes, “So much of who he was was involuntary.” He is helpless to do anything about it. And it is relentless,

After traveling the world in search of a cure, a treatment, plausible or not, spending hours visiting physicians, therapists, researchers, and crackpots, Tim eventually gives up. He surrenders to his walking compulsion. Giving up is what most people eventually do when faced with uncontrollable, unpredictable events in their life.

The Unnamed is also about his marriage and how it crumbles under the weight of the walking compulsion. In my mind, it raises the same questions that I saw in the film Rabbit Hole. What is called for when two people who love one another are confronted by an illness, a tragedy, or misfortune? Do they come together or grow apart or is there anything that can be done about it?


Scribbling in Books

I am reading. I come across a sentence or a phrase that stops me in my tracks. I read it again. Something about it hits me—a question, conjecture, a bit of truth, sometimes a truth about myself. I put a parenthesis around it and note the page number on the inside back cover of the book. And when I finish the book, I copy all the saved passages into a Word document and add them to my Commonplace Book.

The passage is part of the story. But that isn’t why I mark it. I do that because it is relevant to me that may or may not have any relevance to the tale. Another reader might also mark the passage but for entirely different reasons. Or not mark it at all. Instead she marks other passages that I quickly pass by.

Recently I bumped into Fluther, a question and answer website with a social twist. Twitter recently purchased the company that runs it. I must have found it by doing a search for underlining or highlighting passages since it was the subject of the question that appeared on my screen: Do you underline passages in books when you are reading them?

To date fifty-three individuals have described the way they do or do not write in the books they are reading. One person answered, As I read a book, I often underline or highlight passages that I find interesting, things that I can relate to, or words that are really insightful. When I re-read some books, I often reconnect with these passages instantly, but sometimes I find them odd, and wonder what state of mind or stage in life I was at when I first underlined them.

Another person confessed, I’ve always felt that it was wrong to write in books. I know lots of people do it, and many great authors and thinkers have done it, but I just can’t bring myself to write in my books, whether textbooks, novels, or non-fiction, I just can’t do it.

One reported she often bought an extra copy of a book that she had marked up, if it was one she really liked. However, no one said they took the extra step of saving their highlighted passages in electronic form, as I do.

I often ask myself why have I been saving the passages that I mark in books. Is it simply a mindless habit? Yes, I return to them now and then. However, rarely if ever do I return to a single passage and write about it. Nor do I organize a set of passages from various books that deal with a single theme. It would be good to that.

And whenever I return to the collection of passages in my Commonplace Book and open it to a randomly selected page, I am amazed at how provocative many of them are and it is almost a crime to leave them there without some kind of additional commentary or review.

Sometimes saving these passages helps me to remember the book and think once again about its story and themes. So in this way, saving them becomes a memory aid. There’s no other way I could possibly remember the books I read or the ideas in them, without saving them electronically and then printing the collection at the end of each year.

Recently Patrick Kurp wrote on his blog, Anecdotal Evidence: For years I’ve kept notebooks in which I transcribe notable passages from my reading. These commonplace books used to be almost random, organized only by chronology, but they grew unwieldy because I never found time to devise useful indexes. They were diverting to browse but almost worthless if I sought a specific passage or topic.

The fact that saving the passages electronically permits such a search is one of the major reasons I spend the extra time copying them. It is a highly effectively way to create the kind of index that Kurp seeks. He also experiences the same thing I do when I return to read some of the passages I’ve been saving all these years. It is sometimes rather startling.

At some point I started dedicating discrete notebooks to large subjects – Trees, Birds, I’ve leafed through it the last several days, marveling at the amount of insight and first-rate writing devoted to the subject, the central event in our history, the one we’re still contesting. For a sobering insight, compare the mass of words inspired by the Vietnam War. Michael Herr? Tim O’Brien


Rabbit Hole

Can you imagine a more shattering experience than the death of your child? When you lose a child, you become a different person. There is no going back to the way you were before. It is a wound that no one ever recovers from. This is the subject of Rabbit Hole a film currently showing in the theaters.

Before it became a move, it was a Pulitzer Prize winning Broadway play. It was also the subject of the 2007 French Film, Apres Lui. And before then it was treated in the highly praised Ian McEwan novel, The Child in Time. Like the couple in Rabbit Hole, the couple in McEwan’s novel, whose child disappears one day, grow apart following their loss.

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

It is the way the couples diverge in response to the loss of their child, the kind of loss that makes normal life impossible, that captured my greatest sympathies in the film. Normally, you would expect them to come together. But in both fictional accounts, they don’t.

Six months ago Danny, the four-year old son of Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie (Aron Eckhart) in Rabbit Hole, was killed by a car as he was rushing into the street to retrieve his ball. Becca is trying to forget Danny, to erase all vestiges of his life, while Howie continues to grieve.

He does not want to get rid of Danny’s clothes or toys or postings on the refrigerator door as Becca does. He continues to attend a support group; Becca stays home. The disagreements, sometimes violent, continue to escalate. There is no coming together, no shared grief, only further and further drifting apart.

How can one understand this? Is there some reason why both McEwan and David Linday-Abaire, the author of the theatrical Rabbit Hole, chose to depict the loss of a child this way? Yes, it is almost impossible to ever recover from such an event. But why in this divergent fashion? Does it reflect a fundamental difference in their personalities, a difference that existed well before their marriage?

It is easier to understand the connection sought in both Apres Lui and Rabbit Hole when the women begin to stalk the person who was responsible, albeit both accidental, for the death of their son. In Apres Lui, the divorced Camille (Catherine Deneuve), searches for her son’s friend who was driving the car when he was killed in an accident. She hires him to work in her bookshop, cooks meals for him, and arranges to pay for his college tuition.

In Rabbit Hole, Becca follows the school bus that brings her teenage son’s friend home from school each day. Eventually they begin meeting at a park bench. One day he brings her a graphic novel that he had made. Together they try to recover from an experience from which there is no recovery. When Howie learns of their meetings, he becomes enraged which serves only to increase the distance between them,

People react differently to the same event, to a story they are reading or to a tragedy they experience. Sometimes a tragedy as devastating as the death of your child can create a gap that can never be closed. While the marriages did not collapse in Rabbit Hole or The Child in Time, we know they will never be the same.


Stoner: Revisited

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

Until a few years ago I had never heard of the novel Stoner or its author, John Williams. My introduction to the novel occurred while reading a blog where it was given the kind of praise normally reserved for a masterpiece. It was also said to be a tragic tale of a college professor of literature.

Within minutes I left to buy a copy of the novel and not long after had one of the highpoints of my reading days. Early last year I wrote a short review of it and began to read whatever else I could find about the book and its author. Every now and then I chance upon another person’s discovery of the novel and how they were as overwhelmed by it as everyone else is.

I am led to wonder why we don’t hear more about Stoner? I don’t think I’ve ever met a person who has read it or seen more than a handful of commentators write about. C. P. Snow’s explanation is that “…we live in a peculiarly silly age and it doesn’t fit the triviality of the day.” Earlier he said, “Very few novels in English, or literary productions of any kind, have come anywhere near its level for human wisdom or as a work of art.”

I read about Snow’s appraisal in a recent essay, A Sadness Unto the Bone: John William’s Stoner, by Mel Livatino in the Summer 2010 issue of the Sewanee Review. Livatino feels much the same way as Snow. He has read the novel four times and says that knowing the plot and being so familiar with its pages has not diminished their power. Isn’t that what is said about a classic work of literature? Still he confesses he isn’t sure if he “can endure Stoner’s sorrow again.”

Livatino considers the novel “remarkable” in four ways.

1. Unlike most contemporary novels, Stoner unfolds the life story of an individual from birth to death.

2. “The narrative “runs counter to modernism’s dictum to show, not tell.”

3. The novel reads like a work of poetry, it is deeply moving and “pitch perfect.”

4. He also believes few writers today express the depth of understanding and sympathy of the characters they write about as Williams does in Stoner.

There is something else about Stoner that led me to feel similarly moved. It has nothing to do with its structure or how it was written or the fact that Stoner’s life in the university bore a certain similarity to my own. Rather it was the way in which literature transformed his life, gave him a new life and identity, one that as Livatino notes changed his life from “dumbness to consciousness.”

“His teaching excels not because he is brilliant of creative, or flashing—none of which he is, as the novel shows—but because he is witness to such a consciousness and is dedicated to the literature that has brought it into being and because he demands much of his students.”


"People Need Bookstores"

One night before I moved from Portland, Oregon, I went over the Powell’s, the well-known bookstore just a few blocks from my home. It was the first time I had been there in a long while. I went upstairs to the book holding room. I had ordered a book from their warehouse the day before and here it was the very next day and then came downstairs, where a reading was about to begin, and eventually down another flight to the new book section on the 1st floor. It felt really good to be there, so close to where my home was, even though the night was cold and wet.

The next morning I thought it might be hard to live in a place where Powell’s wasn’t just a couple of blocks down the way. And then I wondered if a bookstore, if Powell’s, could keep a person, keep me, in a town that I found so cold and oppressive most of the year. For me, and so many others, a bookstore, especially one like Powell’s is really the heart of a community.

And yet each day we learn of another bookstore closing. Even the large chain bookstores are beginning to close now. Borders will be shutting down over 200 stores across the country, including its largest store on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. Barnes and Noble is also closing some of their largest stores, including the “megastore” near Lincoln Center in Manhattan. One by one both the large and the small stores are giving up the game. It is not unlike losing one long-time friend after another.

But every once in a while we hear about a really fine bookstore that is still there and may even be doing well. Birchbark Books in Minneapolis, the bookstore owned by the writer Louise Erdrich is an example. In an interview in the latest Paris Review (#195) Erdrich talks about her store as well as bookstores in general. I don’t think I have read anything more compelling than her description of what a bookstore means to a community and to its readers.

She says that while the store is a business, it is far more about the people who work there and the people who come to find books. “But walking into a small bookstore, you immediately feel the presence of the mind that has chosen the books on the shelves. You communicate intellectually with the buyer. Then if you’re lucky, you meet another great reader in person…”

It is silly of me to try to convey Erdrich’s high praise of bookstores. Better that I let her speak for herself.

“People need bookstores and need other readers. We need the intimate communication with others who love books. We don’t really think we do because of the ease that the Internet has introduced, but we still need the physical world more than we know. Little bookstores are community services, not profitable business enterprises. Books are just too inexpensive online and there are too many of them, so a physical bookstore has to offer something different. Perhaps little bookstores will attain nonprofit status. Maybe one fine day the government will subsidize them, so they can thrive as nonprofit entities. Some very clever bookstore, probably not us, is going to manage to do that and become the paradigm of the rest.”

Will we ever see the day that the government, state or federal, subsidizes little bookstores? For the cost of subsidizing General Motors, the government could easily keep alive every small bookstore in this country and open a sizable number of new ones along the way.

In the interview Erdrich also had some very sensible things to say about the future of books. “As for the book as an object, it’s like bread. It is such a perfectly evolved piece of technology that it will be hard to top….the paperback—so low-low tech and high-tech at the same time—it is also a great piece of technology.”

Unlike an electronic book, it can be given to someone else, you can write in it, you can even put it on your bookshelf. “I also like that you can throw books across the room, as people have done with mine….The whole absence of touching and feeling a book would be a loss…”

At the same time, she knows that there are many readers who just want the text so that electronic versions are best viewed as another method of publication. She does not object to them. She says, “I don’t feel the sense of alarm and threat that some other writers seem to feel about e-books.”

I am with her from A to Z on books, bookstores, and the future of reading. And she has said it all so vigorously and so eloquently.


"The Line That Separates Art from Life"

The appeal of Paul Auster’s new novel, Sunset Park, steadily grew on me. I came to know the characters better, the past that brought them to their present situations, and what their future course, if any, is likely to be. And along the way, I came to like each of them more and more.

In a word, I really became immersed in the novel and by the end I didn’t want our friendships to end. Isn’t one of the things every reader is looking for in a novel? One of the characters says: He has never been able to put his finger on the line that separates art from life. That is true of most of the novels that engage me.

We first meet Miles Heller, the central character, who is working perfunctorily “trashing out” foreclosed houses in Florida, getting rid of all the things left behind when the residents are evicted. They always leave their house littered with trash.

“In a collapsing world of economic ruin and relentless, every expanding hardship, trashing out is one of the few thriving businesses in the area…In the beginning, he was stunned by the disarray and the filth, the neglect.”

Miles has come to the end of the line. He has no plans, no ideas, no real hope that his days will improve. Other than trashing out homes he spends his days doing next to nothing—reading, thinking walking, watching films, following the news.

He is haunted by the memory of his stepbrother’s death. It occurred while they were walking together on a country road and arguing about some trivial matter. But their argument got out of hand, leading Miles to shove his angry brother into the road, right in the path of an oncoming car.

“He doesn’t know if Bobby’s death was an accident or if he was secretly trying to kill him. The entire story of his life hinges upon what happened that day…he still can’t be certain if he is guilty of a crime or not.”

Miles flees New York and the home of his father and stepmother, never letting them know where he is or making any contact over the course of the next seven years. Eventually, he is jolted out of his grief by meeting and then falling in love with Pilar whom he first sees in a park reading The Great Gatsby. Pilar is smart, rather a precocious intellectual so it seems. But she is also “underage,” only sixteen.

And while they share an ardent devotion to one another, to avoid arrest for having an affair with an underage minor, Miles eventually returns to New York and takes up residence in an abandoned house with three other people.

We meet each of them, in turn—Bing, his close friend, who runs the Hospital for Broken Things where he repairs broken typewriters, rotary phones, fountain pens, cherished objects from the past. We meet Alice who is working on her Ph.D. dissertation and Ellen who is an artist of sorts who suffers history of mental illness. Each of these lost souls captured my sympathy too.

Finally, after several false starts and many imagined reunions, (“…that played out in your head so many times over the years were bound to be richer, fuller, and more emotionally satisfying than the real thing”) he makes contact with his actress stepmother and book publisher father, Morris Heller.

Morris has been scrambling to publish worthwhile books to avoid bankruptcy at Heller Books. Yet, he knows that even if he fails, he will be able to write his memoir with the title, “Forty Years in the Desert: Publishing Literature in a Country Where People Hate Books.”

Even though Miles is warmly reconciled with his parents, Sunset Park ends somberly as he flees New York once again. As he is driving across the Brooklyn Bridge looking at the huge buildings on the other side of the East River, he, like so many others who have viewed this skyline recently, thinks about the,

“…missing buildings, the collapsed and burning building that no longer exist…and he wonders if it is worth hoping for a future when there is no future, and for now he will stop hoping for anything and live only for now, this moment, this passing moment, the now that is here and then not here, the now that is gone forever.”


The Limits of Research

Jonah Lehrer’s dazzling essay, The Decline Effect and the Scientific Method, has been the most frequently e-mailed article from the New Yorker since it was published last month. This pleases me a lot. For Lehrer describes one of the most serious problems associated with research in the social sciences, especially research in psychology and, as he points out, the natural sciences as well.

In a nutshell the problem is the difficulty of replicating experimental findings. A derivative problem is the frequently observed decline in the overall effect of any particular variable(s) with repeated testing. Replication is the heart of scientific research. That is the purpose of making the findings public—so that investigators in other labs can see if they can observe the same outcome. He writes,

“Different scientists in different labs need to repeat the protocols and publish their rests. The test of replicability, as it is know, is the foundation of modern research. Replicability is how the community reinforces itself.”

Lehrer cites many examples of the failure to replicate. He notes how often the therapeutic power of a drug wanes on repeated testing and then eventually disappears or turns out on analysis to be largely a function of the placebo effect. He discusses at some length the difficulty of replicating the phenomenon of verbal overshadowing—how the act of describing memories seems or seemed at one time, to interfere with recall.

And he cites the well-known failure to replicate the early studies by Joseph Rhine on extrasensory perception (ESP) that turned out to be a statistical fluke. It was Rhine who first coined the term “the decline effect.”

It has even been observed in a series of studies where the same genetic strains of mice were shipped to three different labs on the same day from the same supplier and raised under identical conditions, including the way they were handled. The investigator who reported the widely different results from each lab concluded that a lot of scientific data are nothing but noise. “The end result is a scientific accident that can take years to unravel.”

What accounts for the fact that so many research studies cannot be replicated? Several factors are at work. Proper control conditions may have been omitted from the original experiments, the samples may not have been randomly selected or consist of a highly uniform, unrepresentative group of individuals, usually college sophomores. Or the results may have occurred because of experimenter biases that inevitably led to evidence supporting the hypothesis. Few experimenters really design studies to disprove, rather than confirm their hypothesis. This is a point Karl Popper emphasized many years ago.

Then there is the publication biases characteristic of most scientific journals. Researchers who do not report positive outcomes cannot get their findings published. According to one study, ninety-seven percent of psychology studies proved their hypothesis. We know this can’t be the case. As one investigator (Richard Palmer, a biologist) noted, “Once I realized that selective reporting is everywhere in science, I got quite depressed.” And he continued:

“We cannot escape the troubling conclusion that some—perhaps many cherished generalities are at best exaggerated in their biological significance and at worst a collective illusion nurtured by strong a-priori believes often repeated.”

Lehrer has written a powerful, persuasive essay on the limits of scientific research. It is the kind of essay I wish I had written, as I have been aware of this for years based on a lifetime of reading research in psychology, as well as my own studies. I have been guilty of looking for data that confirms my hypothesis, interpreting outcomes in a way that will insure their publication, and no doubt biasing (conservatively) the design of my studies without really trying to test (falsify) them.

But I didn’t write the essay and no doubt could never have done so with the skill and breadth that Lehrer has. I commend him for his piece, as well as the New Yorker for publishing it and thereby making possible its wide dissemination.


The Future of Reading

As I look ahead to the future of reading, I do not share the pessimistic concerns voiced by so many commentators. If anything, I see just as many readers as there ever were, they are reading more, in more ways, and for longer periods of time than ever. They are reading on the Internet, with increasing frequency on their e-readers, and yes, they are still reading printed books.

I go to Powell’s Bookstore in Portland and it is jammed. People walk around with a basket full of books to buy, others are reading while sitting on the floor in the row after row of bookshelves that fill this five-story bookstore. Darin Sennett, director of strategic projects at Powell’s says he sees no evidence that books are dying.

“People do love bookstores and they’re an important part of our culture. Print books are not dead. People will continue to want them and love them. But their desires and the way they want to read are evolving. I can see print and e-books living nicely together.”

I see no decline in the quality or depth of writing in the books and documents I read. To be sure, my choices are highly selective. But I have more than enough to read, in fact, I am inundated with materials that I have always been drawn to. I am not concerned about students who are said to read less and less and no longer write critically or reflectively. My experience has demonstrated that students vary widely on both dimensions in about the same proportion as always.

Instead what I see is an increasing concern about the quality of student education and the nature of their reading habits. And I read about more and more innovative programs to promote the literary arts among the young. To be sure students, as well as the rest of us, are tempted by an increasing number of distractions on the Internet. But there is good reason to believe that, if anything, they may actually keep us more alert, keep our minds more active and more engaged with the text, whether it be on the screen or on the page.

However, I do have one concern and it has nothing to do with purported decline in reading and it is really nothing new either. Instead my concern is how we read. For me reading is a slow process and one that is always performed with a pen in hand as it was during the eras when commonplace books flourished. Like readers then, I write in the margins of the books I read, I underline text, I make notes on the inside covers. And then I copy all of this into my commonplace book to be read again and again and sometimes drawn upon in something I write.

I rarely see a person reading with a pen or pencil and I ask myself what are they getting out of this experience. Do they stop to mull over a sentence or a paragraph, do they go back and read a related passage in the book? What kind of a record will they have of the encounter? What will they remember? Of course, they will remember very little or nothing at all. But if they collected some of their thoughts and memorable passages in some kind of a record, their memories will be preserved so they can be reviewed and considered again and again.

It is a matter of how engaged a person is with what they are reading. When you are skimming pages, or reading rather casually, literature cannot possibly have much influence. But when you are reading reflectively, writing things in the book or on a separate pad of paper, reading can become an experience that will stick with you, will become something you’ll be more likely to bring to your life.

I am on the same wavelength as Ann Patchett whose words deserve to be repeated: “I have long refused to participate in the last rites of what is both my passion and my profession. I meet too many people who stay up half the night racing towards a final chapter. We are a hardy bunch, we readers.”

I don’t think there is anyone who is immune from the pleasures of a book that speaks to them, no one who can ignore a startling bit of truth or a beautiful expression.

In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.

Again Ann Patchett hit the nail on the head: “Why are more people reading? Because they are either discovering or remembering just how good it can be.”