28 July 2009

A vacation and a reading list: a personal update

It's hard to believe how quickly things happen. My summer term - roughly six hours a day, five days a week of education classes - is drawing to a close, and as of Friday afternoon I'll be free for an entire month (the life of a student is good - certainly beats two or three weeks of vacation over the course of a year). I'll be in Colorado (Boulder, Telluride, Denver) for almost two weeks, in Chicago for one, and in Muskegon for one - as well as a few days of camping in Northern Michigan with friends.

Whenever I prepare to travel, my thoughts quickly turn to the question of what books I will bring along and read. I always make absurdly ambitious reading lists and pack way, way more than I could ever hope to finish, and this time is no exception. I am bringing four:

Charles Taylor, A Secular Age. About the rise of secularism in Western society. Considered one of the most important books in the field of religious studies in recent decades. Weighs in at a hefty 776 pages.

John Cheever, Collected Stories and Other Writings. Cheever is one of the best short fiction writers of the 20th century. 969 pages.

Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Publishers Weekly says: "The author, beginning with Homer and the Bible, traces the imitation of life in literature through the ages . . .touching upon every major literary figure in western culture on the way." A key work in 20th-century literary criticism. 574 pages.

Dennis Lord Lloyd of Hampstead, Introduction to Jurisprudence. A vast, out-of-print, fantastically rich collection of writings on the philosophy of law and political philosophy - a mangled old book I believe I picked up for free in the box outside of the Powell's Books in Hyde Park, Chicago. 981 pages (but I'll skip writings that I don't want to read for whatever reason). From the Independent's interesting obituary of Lloyd: "As important to generations of students has been his encyclopaedic Introduction to Jurisprudence (1959). Lloyd was working on the sixth edition when he died. It was through this book that law students in much of the English- speaking world came to read Kelsen, Olivecrona, Savigny, Geny, Pashukanis, giants of continental juristic thought otherwise largely inaccessible. The recipe of wise text and suitably chosen extract remains a model guide to the study of legal thought. To the text he brought his own philosophical training, his culture and his erudition. The Introduction has its detractors but it remains the standard student text on the subject."

Will I succeed in finishing all of these, or any of them? Most likely not. If history is any guide, I'll buy some other book or books during vacation and distract myself with those, or I'll get heavily involved with my writing, almost as a way of avoiding my reading with a good conscience. But if I restrict my book-reading to these four tomes and read around 118 pages a day for 27 days, I could do it - so that's the bar I'm setting for myself.

I can't wait. Two more days of finishing my summer projects, and I'll be free to travel, read, and write without restrictions for an entire month.

27 July 2009

Should we finish the books we begin? It depends.

In an article published in Friday's Washington Times, economist Tyler Cowen makes several interesting and provocative arguments about reading and books.

1. "What should you do when, 20, 50 or 100 pages in, you realize you just don't like a book?" Cowen says: "Give up."

2. "We should treat books a little more like we treat TV channels," (Cowen) argues. No one has trouble flipping away from a boring series."

3. "(Cowen) notes that many up-and-coming writers complain they can't break through in a best-seller-driven marketplace. 'We're also making markets more efficient," Mr. Cowen says. "If you can sample more books, you're giving more people a chance.'"

The article goes on to discuss several other readers who advocate quitting "boring" books: "One of her online friends reminded her there's even an abandonment rule: The 'Deduct Your Age From 100 and Read That Many Pages Before Giving Up on a Book' rule"; and "Having an e-book reader has made Ms. Wendell more ruthless. "I'm holding 100+ books on one device. If one isn't floating my boat, I can move on to something else by pressing one button," she points out."

So should we finish the books we begin? The short answer: it depends. On what? That's more difficult, but it depends on something more than how much we are enjoying the book.

Why did you pick up the book in the first place? If you are reading for pure entertainment, it makes sense to put the book down if you aren't feeling entertained after giving the book a fair shot. But surely most readers read for more than pure entertainment; if "entertainment" were the ultimate goal, there would be no reason to prefer an entertaining book over an equally or more entertaining movie, television show, or video game. In fact, I suspect that the widespread idea that books are primarily sources of entertainment is partially responsible for the decline of book-reading, especially among young people, in recent decades.

I choose and read books that are rewarding and that will enrich my understanding of the world, of myself, and of the human condition. If they are entertaining or exciting at the same time, so much the better, but that isn't the primary goal. In fact, my idea of what is "entertaining" has shifted. I have conditioned myself to prefer forms of leisure - i.e., reading good books, practicing banjo and listening to music, engaging in good conversation, watching good movies - that are rewarding and educative. So even if I am reading a book that I must struggle to get through, that to me is often more entertaining than reading, say, Angels and Demons.

There are, in short, problems with considering a book's excitement and ease the most important factors in deciding whether to read it or finish it. We build our literacy and expand our understanding by reading material that challenges us, just as a musician continually improves his or her proficiency in an instrument not by playing the same basic tunes over and over, but by constantly pushing his or her limits by tackling new, more frustrating and difficult works and techniques.

I have as much trouble as anyone with finishing books, but some books are worth finishing regardless of whether I feel like finishing them. The other week, I completed Moby-Dick after a slow, gradual, four-month effort. Moby-Dick would certainly fail the "entertainment" test for the vast majority of readers, including me. And yet it is now one of my favorite books, because Melville's incredible use of language and his insights into religion, human nature, and life itself made Moby-Dick matter to me: I read it in the hope that it might change the way I write, think, and see the world.

Steinbeck writes in East of Eden: "You can start reading if you want and it will raise up your lid a little." That's as good a statement as any of what good books are for.

(Hat tip for the link to the Washington Times article: Andrew Sullivan)

21 July 2009

Quotes from Michael Walzer and Harold Bloom

At the very center of conservative thought lies this idea: that the present division of wealth and power corresponds to some deeper reality of human life. ...They want to say that whatever the division of wealth and power is, it naturally is, and that all efforts to change it, temporarily successful in proportion to their bloodiness, must be futile in the end.

Michael Walzer
--"In Defense of Equality" in Howe, ed., 25 Years of Dissent

For why do men write poems? To rally everything that remains.
Shelly speculated that poets of all ages contributed to one Great Poem perpetually in progress.
In the contemporary poems that most move me...I can recognize a strength that battles against the death of poetry, yet also the exhaustions of being a latecomer.
Freud recognized sublimation as the highest human achievement, a recognition that allies him to both Plato and to the entire moral traditions of both Judaism and Christianity. Freudian sublimation involves the yielding-up of more primordial for more refined modes of pleasure, which is to exalt the second chance above the first. ...To equate emotional maturation with the discovery of acceptable substitutes may be pragmatic wisdom, especially in the realm of Eros, but this is not the wisdom of the strong poets. The surrendered dream is not merely a phantasmagoria of endless gratification, but is the greatest of all human illusions, the vision of immortality.
Poetic history, in this book's argument, is held to be indistinguishable from poetic influence, since strong poets make that history by misreading one another, so as to clear imaginative space for themselves.
More than any other purely secular author, Shakespeare makes history more than history makes Shakespeare.
A good biography of Shakespeare, like Russell Fraser's, is preferable to any historicism, because at least we are alone with Shakespeare and Fraser, rather than being propagandized by an academic sect or coven.
Shakespeare's energies so fuse rhetoric, psychology, and cosmology that we cannot distinguish them from one another in his greatest plays.

Harold Bloom
--The Anxiety of Influence

18 July 2009

Recent posts on education at Wide Awake Minds

A few of my recent posts at Wide Awake Minds, in case you missed them:

-A few of the things you can do in a great university, in which I argue that if students want to make the most of their school years in general and their college years in particular, they must take ownership of their education and elect to do what is difficult. I propose a few of the ways in which college students can do so.

-Thinking critically about critical pedagogy, in which I encourage my readers to recognize the reality and complexity of cultural and institutional racism, but also to think critically about the theoretical lenses of critical pedagogy (a framework aimed at correcting racism and other power disparities). This post sparked a great discussion in the comment section as well as some fruitful email exchanges.

-Beyond "preparing our kids for 21st-century jobs" - a call to do away with sloganeering about education as job-preparation, and a brief sketch of the case for universal liberal education.

-Ideas about education from Deborah Meier, one of the greatest progressive educators of our time.

-On language learning textbooks - A personal account of my love of language learning textbooks, and what I have learned from them about how and why we should learn world languages.

If you enjoy Wide Awake Minds, please take a moment to link to it on your blog or social network or pass it along to someone who might be interested in reading it.

Thanks, as always, for reading.

Quotes from Czeslaw Milosz and Herman Melville

I finished "Moby-Dick" yesterday. It was one of the most difficult books I've ever read - but also incredibly beautiful and rewarding.


The past is inaccurate, because we cannot determine how it was in fact, no matter how hard we try. We must rely on people's memory, which is treacherous, because memory is constantly juggling and revising the data of experience. ...In telling about an event, we ourselves cannot avoid revising it, because our narrative simplifies and composes a whole out of selected components, while omitting others. It suffices to compare our knowledge of facts with their depiction in chronicles, journalistic accounts, memoirs, to understand the need for fantasizing that is somehow inscribed in the language itself, and which draws us into the forest of fiction.
Los Angeles horrifies me. In our imagination money is still steel and the production of factories; it is difficult to accustom oneself to the great change, the complete reversal, that has granted a marginal human activity, entertainment, its central position as a source of money or power.
I am moved by the very fact of that woman's existence, of which all that has remained is this verse.
I know my own weakness and am inclined to consider myself...as a tangle of reflexes, a drunken child in the fog.
The essential characteristic of fame is its illusory nature, for what does a famous name mean if those who mention it are not well-informed about why it is famous? That, after all, is the fate of the majority of monuments in every large city; they turn into signs from which the content has evaporated.
Everything that enlarges man fortifies us; everything that depicts him as a multidimensional being.

Czeslaw Milosz
--Milosz's ABCs

A whole hour now passed; gold-beaten out to ages.
What a lovely day again! were it a new-made world, and made for a summer-house to the angels, and this morning the first of its throwing open to them, a fairer day could not dawn upon that world.
Ah! how they still strove through that infinite blueness to seek out the thing that might destroy them!
But Ahab's glance was averted; like a blighted fruit tree he shook, and cast his last, cindered apple to the soil.
Close! stand close to me, Starbuck; let me look into a human eye; it is better than to gaze into sea or sky; better than to gaze upon God.
What! how can you see better of a dark night than anybody else, never mind how foolish?
Old man of oceans! of all this fiery life of thine, what at length will remain but one little heap of ashes!
Let faith oust fact; let fancy oust memory; I look deep down and do believe.
Would to God these blessed calms would last. But the mingled, mingling threads of life are woven by warp and woof: calms crossed by storms, a storm for every calm. There is no steady unretracing progress in this life; we do not advance through fixed gradations, and at the last one pause: - through infancy's unconscious spell, boyhood's thoughtless faith, adolescence' doubt (the common doom), then scepticism, then disbelief, resting at last in manhood's pondering repose of If. But once gone through, we trace the round again; and are infants, boys, and men, and Ifs eternally. Where lies the final harbor, whence we unmoor no more? in what rapt ether sails the world, of which the weariest will never weary?
I like a good grip; I like to feel something in this slippery world that can hold, man.
Seat thyself sultanically among the moons of Saturn, and take high abstracted man alone; and he seems a wonder, a grandeur, and a woe. But from the same point, take mankind in mass, and for the most part, they seem a mob of unnecessary duplicates, both contemporary and hereditary. But most humble though he was, and far from furnishing an example of the high, humane abstraction; the Pequod's carpenter was no duplicate.

Hermann Melville

14 July 2009

The case for Facebook and social networking

Even though Facebook currently has over 200 million active users, many people continue to doubt the value of social networking in general and Facebook in particular. Critics argue that Facebook and other social networking and Web 2.0 tools - including blogs and Twitter - are symptomatic of the "solipsism" (meaning, in this context, the self-absorption of users) of the contemporary Internet.

Indeed, Facebook can be an enormous time-waster and procrastination tool, as can any medium or Internet resource. I've reflected a lot about my own use of the site over the past six years or so, and I've asked myself whether it is a worthwhile use of my time and an appropriate way - one among others, obviously - to communicate with my friends, family, colleagues, and acquaintances.

The debate was largely settled for me a few months ago when I heard a remarkable lecture by Clara Shih, social networking expert and author of The Facebook Era.

Shih spoke in April at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business, and I was in attendance to sell copies of her book. (I was working as a manager at a bookstore at the time). I went in with low expectations, as I generally take a dim view of the overcrowded genre of popular business books in general and books on making money through technology in particular. But Shih's presentation blew me away; she made me see Facebook and social networking in an entirely different light, and she helped me understand the many complex issues involved with social networking, and the utility social networking tools can have for those willing to critically evaluate and monitor their use of them.

The core reason for Facebook's popularity, according to Shih, is that it lowers the cost of keeping in touch. Keeping in touch with people you've met is a difficult and time-consuming process. Facebook makes it much, much easier. And it can help us keep in touch in a more meaningful way: there is less need to small talk with distant friends about where they are working, what they are studying, where they are living, and so forth - it's all out there on their Facebook page, and so we can keep track of people we've met as they move through their lives. When we think of them, we can think of who they are and what they are doing now rather than who they were when we met them years before.

This powerful idea was brought home to me again this month, as the host family I lived with in Italy for ten weeks in my sophomore year of college joined Facebook and "Friended" me. It takes a lot of effort to write a letter in Italian, put it in an envelope, wait in line at the post office to buy international postage, and finally send it - but it takes ten seconds to write on their "walls." And so I am much more likely to do the latter than the former, and our relationship need not be weakened by our falling out of touch.

12 July 2009

Quotes from Randall Jarrell, Herman Melville, and John D. Caputo

From Next Day

Wisdom, said William James,
Is learning what to overlook. And I am wise
If that is wisdom.
Yet somehow, as I buy All from these shelves
And the boy takes it to my station wagon,
What I've become
Troubles me even if I shut my eyes.
Imaginings within my imagining,
I too have taken
The chance of life. Now the boy pats my dog
And we start home. Now I am good.
The last mistaken,
Ecstatic, accidental bliss, the blind

Happiness that, bursting, leaves upon the palm
Some soap and water -
It was so long ago....

--Randall Jarrell

The overt Godlessness of our world is a latent Godliness. To an eye keen for things theological, religion is most present where it is least visible. That "secularism" blinds us to the theological order everywhere implicit in the secular order is the "central" player in (Mark C.) Taylor's dialectic. After God is full of illuminating narratives generated by this hypothesis, the central story being how much "modernity" goes back to the Reformation: Luther's assertion of subjectivity, his rejection of tradition in favor of personal experience, his media-savvy insistence on the vernacular and use of the printing press....

John D. Caputo
--Review of Mark C. Taylor's After God in The Journal of the American Academy of Religion 77:1

Look not too long in the face of the fire, O man! Never dream with thy hand on the helm! Turn not thy back to the compass; accept the first hint of the hitching tiller; believe not the artificial fire, when its redness makes all things look ghastly. To-morrow, in the natural sun, the skies will be bright; those who glared like devils in the forking flames, the morn will show in far other, at least gentler, relief; the glorious, golden, glad sun, the only true lamp - all others but liars!

Nevertheless the sun hides not Virginia's Dismal Swamp, nor Rome's accursed Campagna, nor wide Sahara, nor all the millions of miles of deserts and of griefs beneath the moon. The sun hides not the ocean, which is the dark side of this earth, and which is two thirds of this earth. So, therefore, that mortal man who hath more of joy than sorrow in him, that mortal man cannot be true - not true, or undeveloped. With books the same. The truest of all men was the Man of Sorrows, and the truest of all books is Solomon's, and Ecclesiastes is the fine hammered steel of woe. "All is vanity." ALL.
There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness. And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces. And even if he for ever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plain, even though they soar.

Herman Melville

From 90 North

I see at last that all the knowledge
I wrung from the darkness - that the darkness flung me -
Is worthless as ignorance: nothing comes from nothing,
The darkness from the darkness. Pain comes from the darkness
And we call it wisdom. It is pain.

--Randall Jarrell

01 July 2009

New short fiction: "The Day-Trader"

"The Day-Trader," my most recent short story, is being featured in the July issue of Fogged Clarity. Check it out here.

There is a lot of great stuff in this issue - fiction, poetry, a short film, visual art, a music album, and an essay - so be sure to check out the other pieces as well. If you like what you see, you can support Fogged Clarity by linking to it, passing it along to others, and making a donation.

U.S. Should Resist the Urge to Confront Kim Jong-Il

My latest op-ed, "Resist the Urge to Confront Kim Jong-Il," appeared on Antiwar.com this morning. In it, I make the case that any honest examination of the U.S.'s policy options regarding North Korea must begin with the acknowledgment that, first, war is not an option, and second, that the strategies of isolation and sanctions have been tried and have failed for 60 years. Accordingly, our only chance for a resolution of the North Korean issue is through direct talks with the North aimed at a comprehensive peace settlement and an official end to the Korean War. This is not a pleasant option, but it is the right one.

Read the article and the argument here; please feel free to comment directly on the site, through a letter to the editor, or via email. If you enjoy the article, please link to it or forward it to others who might be interested in reading it.