What’s up so far in 2014? Home buying, it seems

[N.B.: Mostly written 6 January with minor updates over next 2-3 days. Current follow-up follows.]

So what’s up in 2014 so far? 2014 got off to a great start. For one day.

Sara and I do a kind of annual review, along with a semi-annual review and weekly reviews using assorted tools such as calendars, OmniFocus and some text documents. Neither of us do resolutions but we do want to have goals for the year, and to check up on them now and again so that we might have a chance to actually accomplish most of them. We entered 2014 with this year’s annual review pretty much done. Mine was primarily complete except for final formatting as a document in Scrivener.

Then on the 2nd of January the mail was delivered. Our place was recently bought by some out-of-towners and we got notice that our rent was going up 15%! We are already stretched pretty thin and that is just ridiculous. We immediately jumped into “can we buy a house” mode. We have been considering that anyway but we figured it was at least 6 months to more like 2-3 years in the future for us. Nope. [We need to find out right now whether we can get a loan for enough to buy a house here in Bend or we need to find a cheaper place to rent until we can qualify for said loan. If we can get a loan then we need to be seriously looking for a house that meets all of [ok, much of, hopefully]  our criteria.

Either way, (update to follow)] almost everything I had planned for this year has now been indefinitely placed on hold. My 2014 annual review/plan has been scrapped by the second day of the year. Yay, me!

Thankfully a lot of stuff is still in boxes from when we arrived here in August 2012. That will make moving somewhat easier. But we also have not weeded out near enough stuff that we were supposed to have gotten rid of by now. And we have probably acquired more stuff than we have gotten rid of. My surgery in May put in a big damper on my weeding which I had hoped to do this past summer. Sara’s full-time job has prevented her from making any progress on her stuff.

I have jumped into weeding pretty heavy the last couple of days and hope to continue. We’re donating a bunch of stuff to the Humane Society Thrift Store, some of the better books to the public library, and recycling a crapload of stuff. There is, sadly, plenty more to go through though. As we free up a bit of room by getting rid of stuff I have a bit more room to get at and sort through even more. So I guess one can say it’s looking up.

It is, though, extremely demoralizing to have just committed to and documented one’s goals for the year and to then have to toss it all away on January 2nd.

So what were/are some of my plans for 2014?

  • Read 75 books http://marklindner.info/blog/2014/01/01/reading-goals-2014/
  • Wrangle our ebooks into some kind of order, usability, etc.
  • Do some more beer tastings
  • Help with Central Oregon Beer Week
  • Do another book talk this year for Central Oregon Beer Week
  • Meet some of the beer folks in Bend who I haven’t been able to yet
  • Do some beer trading
  • Finish my “article” on Prohibition in Bend
  • Perhaps work on my Cicerone certification
  • Blog some book reviews that I am way behind on
  • Learn to make better use of Evernote, OmniFocus, Scrivener, etc.
  • Meal planning
  • Get my new tattoo started
  • Track down a citation for that damned Paracelsus quote or show that it is not attributable to him
  • Exercise more and get back into some semblance of shape
  • Visit some places in Oregon: Broken Top, lava tubes, Crater Lake, etc.

23 January update:

We found a house, put in an offer, got their counter and accepted. We have the inspection set for Saturday a.m. and are meeting with the mortgage broker tomorrow morning to do more paperwork and get VA appraisal scheduled. If all goes well with those we’ll be moving late winter / early spring.

I have been in full-on moving prep mode for about a week now. I am so damned sore. But. I am much closer to being ready. I have a good idea of what is packed, more stuff was topped off and packed and many binders and articles were packed, it is mostly segregated from other stuff, and the inventory is updated. More books were weeded.

We should have a couple weeks to move in. It kind of comes down to when we close and the 30-day notice we give our landlord. Current estimated closing is March 17.

My only big concern is weather. Well, and will my aging body hold out: preferably for it to treat all the labor as weightlifting and other “good” exercise. Seriously though, moving in the rain or a snowstorm or having ice/snow on the ground are the worst for moving. So far our winter has included almost none of any of that, which is not good. We need snow, at least outside of town.

It is all moving so fast. Which, of course, has deepened even more the feeling of upended plans. Not all is a loss, though. I am reading some and not quite as slowly as I suspected. I am helping with Central Oregon Beer Week as a member of their team this year. If you need me for any Central Oregon Beer Week business feel free to email me at mark@centraloregonbeerweek.com. I am trying to figure out what I want to do as Bend Beer Librarian for COBW; not up for another book talk for this year. Considering things and talking with people but need to decide soon to save 15% as a returning sponsor.

I met a few more Bend beer people, including one I wanted to meet in person, but, intriguingly, we met them in Portland. We attended the 1st Big Woody put on in Portland and a boatload of Bendites were there as attendees, volunteers, brewery folks representing, and event organizers/staff. That was nice and I finally met Matthew Ward (Bend Brew Daddy) and his wife Lisa. Definitely hope to hang out more with them. We also got to spend some time with non-Bendite but extremely nice guy Christopher (PortlandBeer.com) at Hair of the Dog. So possibly future trading and/or nice bottle swaps as it sounds like his are the kind of quality we are looking for. Maybe we can get Christopher to Bend, although we explored so little of Portland last weekend.

Blogging and other forms of writing have been practically non-existent, book reading is way down, research for either major topic of current interest is on hold, and most other projects listed above or not are pretty much forgotten about.

I hope this place works out and we can get settled in quickly. I’d like to get back to some of my projects recently put on hold and others, many of which have been a long time coming.

It is an adventure, and so far easier than expected, but its timing seems a little sudden.

 

 

Hysteria (movie)

[This, too, is a late DigiWriMo post.]

Thankfully, later after watching The Tree of Life we watched Hysteria, which we have also been wanting to see after seeing the previews a couple years ago. It by no stretch came to conservative Sioux City so we missed it in the theater. We couldn’t even find it in Omaha, although we could be wrong on that count but we had looked repeatedly while it was in theaters. Ninety miles one way is a long way to go for a film but we would have.

After we watched it I tweeted,

Cleansed my movie palate with Hysteria, based on this most excellent book by Rachel Maines http://marklindner.info/blog/2011/02/02/maines-the-technology-of-orgasm/ [tweet]

The next morning, Karen Coyle tweeted to me:

@mrlindner One of my favorite books. See: bit.ly/UYGA8X [tweet]

Check out her review at that link. It is much better than mine.

We saw the preview for the movie in the cinema shortly after I read Maines’ excellent book and I knew that it was (somewhat) based on Maines’ book immediately. It looked hilarious and as The Technology of Orgasm is one of my favorite books of all time—which I had discussed a fair bit with Sara as I read it—we really wanted to see it. It did not come to Sioux City or environs and time went by. We moved and even more time went by. Sara got it from the public library finally and we watched it last night. The movie was as good as we hoped and we are in the process of watching the documentary (actually excerpts from Passion and Power: The Technology of Orgasm) that comes as an extra feature on the DVD. It is also pretty good and features a lot of Rachel Maines, along with a couple of others, so I am happy to be able to hear her talk about her research also.

The Technology of Orgasm The Technology of Orgasm: “Hysteria,” the Vibrator, and Women’s Sexual SatisfactionRachel P. Maines; The Johns Hopkins University Press 1998WorldCatLibraryThingGoogle BooksBookFinder  
Katherine Young (Ph.D. and author of Presence in the Flesh: The Body in Medicine) puts forth the idea that the Copernican Revolution was revolutionary in another way than is typically thought. She had been outlining some long time ideas on human sexuality in that males were thought to be of the elements of fire and air, thus hot and light, and that women were of earth and water, and thus heavy, cold and wet. When the Copernican Revolution replaced the Earth (female) as the center of the solar system/universe with the sun (male) then female sexuality as a topic disappeared from discourse.

It is an extremely interesting idea but I would really like to see some good supporting evidence. If anyone knows of any books or articles that address this idea I would be most grateful. My initial skepticism leans toward the shift having started well before and that the displacement of the Earth from the center was perhaps the final straw. And even if the idea as presented is true, then I imagine it is hingeing on a highly condensed version of reality, in that the Copernican Revolution involved an awful lot of historical, political, societal and religious changes that were highly intertwined and influencing each other in multiple ways. Symbolically this idea is highly interesting, but I imagine the reality of the shift away from a supposedly fairly prevalent knowledge of female sexuality and needs to one that pretty much discounted female sexuality would have to be far more complex than a shift in symbols.

I would love to have my skepticism discounted though so please do pass along any sources you may be aware of that address this issue. [I went back and re-watched that section and got her name and the name of the book she wrote, Presence in the Flesh: The Body in Medicine, which Sara has requested for me.] So, if you are aware of any other sources that address this intriguing topic please do pass them along.

Synopis:

Hysteria: Good romantic comedy based on an excellent and important book.

Follow-up: Tonight (3 December) we watched the full documentary, Passion and Power: The Technology of Orgasm, which we got through ILL. It was good but it was only 74 minutes vs. the 47 minutes of excerpts on the DVD of Hysteria as an extra. The additional material was interesting but probably not worth going out of one’s way to acquire. You can find more information about it here.

Young’s book has also arrived by this point in time and I look forward to having a go at it, but I am highly disappointed to say that neither Copernicus nor Copernican Revolution are anywhere to be found in the index. I want to know more about this symbological interpretation but am remaining highly skeptical as to its actual explanatory depth.

 

Got unglue.it?

My tl;dr point:

If only 1/10th of all the librarians attending ALA Annual this coming week pledged $1 to Oral Literature in Africa by Ruth H. Finnegan (1970) then it would be successful.

So, you may not have heard, but there’s this thing called unglue.it.  Or maybe you have but have yet to look into it. It officially launched May 17th.

unglue (v. t.) 4. For an author or publisher, to accept a fixed amount of money from the public for its unlimited use of an ebook. (From their main page)

I am MarkLindner there and am a very early supporter.

What you can do

You can support the ungluing of books so that the resulting ebooks rights are Creative Commons licensed so readers everywhere may enjoy free and legal access to these works. See this page as a good starting point for more info. The set of faq pages are also a great place to find more information whether you are a reader, an author or a rights holder.

As an account holder, you can add books to your wishlist, support books others have already added, and pledge to support the ungluing of specific works. Since the site just recently launched there are currently 5 active campaigns.

Each campaign includes assorted premium levels, much like Kickstarter. See, for instance, this page for Love Like Gumbo by Nancy Rawles. In all cases (so far), for only a $1 pledge you will get a copy of the resulting ebook if the campaign is successful. For increasing amounts you get other things on top of a copy of the book.

If you are on my actual blog (vs. feedreader, etc.) you can see in my right sidebar widget area that you can also embed widgets for books on active campaigns and those on your wishlist. I currently have two, one for the book I am currently pledged for and one for Patrick Wilson’s Two Kinds of Power which I so very much want University of California Press to … well, do the right thing by.

Why I am supporting unglue.it

I became a member as soon as I saw the official announcement for beta testers (I had been reading about the idea in advance) at Eric Hellman’s blog: go to hellman. There is, of course, now an unglue.it blog where you can read about each of the campaigns and other things.

I have no idea if this model can work but I want it to. Sara and I support a fair few projects via Kickstarter also and we think that crowdfunded projects are a great way to show artists, authors, and assorted rights holders that people do want to support them while getting a quality product for a fair price and that they are willing to put their wallets where their mouths (or computer clicks) are.

During the beta testing there was a call to help test the pledge mechanisms and payment processes (currently via Amazon Payments) and I helped out. I made a pledge for $5, I increased it to $25, and then I decreased it to $10. We were asked to do such wishy-washy things to stress test their systems. The primary premium was a copy of a chapter Eric Hellman wrote called “Open Access EBooks” for a book by Sue Polanka. Increasing premiums were things like unglue.it stickers, autographed stickers, and so on. I was able to provide some useful feedback and left my pledge at $10 so they might have a (very) small bit of operating funds.

When the site went live and first five campaigns were announced I must admit I was a little disappointed. I wasn’t deeply interested in any of those works. I mean they all looked interesting enough but with hundreds of books on hand and thousands more not immediately on hand that I know I want to read they weren’t intriguing enough to me to pledge for any of them. I justified my not contributing by my participation in the beta pledge.

Friday I changed my mind and pledged $7 to Oral Literature in Africa by Ruth H. Finnegan (1970)Why?

  1. I really truly want this model to succeed. To do so they need to be successful early on and this work currently has the most chance of being so.
  2. I am actually truly interested in this book even if it isn’t that high on the priority of the oh so lengthy to-be-read list.
  3. They bribed me. :P They offered some additional pledge incentives, one of which was the $7 level which would give me a copy of this ebook, if successful, and a choice of another ebook from the publisher. Oooh, this is the other book I’ll hopefully get myself.
  4. Did I mention that early success is critical to demonstrate to authors and rights holders that this model is a workable one?

What I would like you to do

Please have a look around the unglue.it site. Read the about page, poke at the faqs, look at the bios of the people involved, peruse the blog, check out the books in the active campaigns.

But most importantly, pledge something for one or more of these books. It shouldn’t really matter if you are even personally interested in any of these titles. If the campaigns are successful then these books will be free, as ebooks, for anyone. And surely you know someone you could give a copy of one (or more) of them to. $1 is all it takes!

If you are a librarian, a reader, or an ebook reader, then imho you really ought be contributing to the success of this model. It isn’t the only way forward but it can be a great start. But only if people like us make it one!

If only 1/10th of all the librarians attending ALA Annual this coming week pledged $1 to Oral Literature in Africa by Ruth H. Finnegan (1970) then it would be successful.

We have only 5 days left to make this a success. Won’t you be a part of something this important?

Two-Thirds Book Challenge Update 6

This is update 6 in the Two-Thirds Book Challenge.

Helen

Helen has been quite busy this month … catching up on blogging things that she has read over the last few months.

Trinity by Leon Uris

She gave this one 5 stars in goodreads. “It is a dreary & beautiful slog through fictionalized history of a conquered people.” See her review for more.

The Littlest Hitler by Ryan Boudinot

This collection of short stories garnered 3 stars from her. While the “stories were all technically very well written” she “just kept thinking over and over that it was all trying too hard. The writing was effortless and a pleasure to read, but the story was always a little too hip, a little too cool, a little too ‘look how shocking.'” She hopes to try some of his more recent stuff before writing him off.

Pure Drivel by Steve Martin

“Usually I love Steve Martin’s writing, but this one was a miss for me.” 3 stars. See her review for why this one just didn’t work for her.

Scenes From An Impending Marriage by Adrian Tomine

Another 5 star book. “I hear that this comic isn’t his best work from lots of folks, but since a) I’ve read and loved all his work and b) I feel a kinship to his attitude about most things, I feel qualified to say this book was awesome.” As someone ‘recently’ married, she has convinced me to read it.

Murder Unleashed by Rita Mae Brown

“This story is a murder mystery that encompasses a wide variety of topics including but not limited to: the mortgage crisis, squatter’s rights, hunger both human and animal, coyote’s and ranch politics, cattle farming, campaign finance, school buses, and sex industry workers. I’m sure there was more, plus the everyday lives of regular characters. The story is easy and RMB has a gift for packing a lot of content into a weekend read without making it laborious.”

She thinks the series is improving but read her review to find out why she only gave it 3 stars.

 Jen!!

After a drought, two books down

Summer Knight by Jim Butcher

“This is the fourth book in the Dresden series and I loved it. It lived up to Butcher’s standards for adventure, inventiveness, and fun.”

Years of Grace by Margaret Ayer Barnes

“[I]nspired by a reference in The Violets of March” she was led into the Stacks at UIUC and was “glad that I followed through on reading it. … Indeed, I found it a thoughtful telling of a life, the choices made, and the results that come from those choices.”

Sounds like a good read. And Brava, Jen, for daring the Stacks! I miss them so very, very much!

The Marriage Artist by Andrew Winer

Past, present, Vienna, World War II, art, death and lovers. Wow. “The book drew me in almost instantly, making want to know more about the characters–their past, their future, how they would deal with the present. … This book is a wonderful get-a-way from the day to day and I especially like the time shifting of it and getting to witness the impact that the choices made in one’s youth had on the future.”

Sara

Quiet Renaissance Power

Sara reviewed two books “that were very different but struck similar chords” for her, which she read during the same time period as part of her Creativity theme for the 2/3rds Book Challenge: Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking by Susan Cain, and The Renaissance Soul: life design for people with too many passions to pick just one by Margaret Lobenstine.

“In the end, I benefited from reading both of these books and I think reading them at the same time worked out really well. From Renaissance Soul, I have a list of specific goals and a timeline which actually feels realistic. From Quiet, I have several other book recommendations (I think I’ll finally get around to reading Flow now) and better ways of articulating what I need to myself and others.”

She does caution readers about an “us and them” premise which is present in both books, though.

E

The Wild Palms (If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem) by William Faulkner

This was a tough one for E but it will be with her for a long time. Life often puts these complex and difficult texts in front of us during times of stress, whether we need them or not, and they change us; often for the better, more often not appreciated until much later.

Read her powerful review.

“Do I even need to tell you that there can’t possibly be a happy ending? “That story ends very badly for all involved, you know.” “Don’t all the good ones?” And then there’s this, where I am right now, drinking bourbon in the back room of my new apartment in Pilsen, listening to the whistle of trains in the distance, scanning for the moon against the night sky.”

Keep scanning for the moon, my friend. She’ll always be there for you. Day or night, day and night, she has always been there for me.

Mark

In Defence of the Enlightenment by Tzvetan Todorov

I really wanted to like this book but it let me down. Sure, my review is far more nuanced than that, and I am glad I read it, but that is the gist of my reaction to it.

See you next month.

Todorov, In Defence of the Enlightenment

In defence of the EnlightenmentTzvetan Todorov ; translated from the French by Gila Walker.; Atlantic Books 2009WorldCatLibraryThingGoogle BooksBookFinder

I almost bought this book when it came out in December 2009, but I had read at least one review which was not very positive. I wish I could find whatever I had read to see whether I agree with it. I have tried but I failed.

I have read at least three other Tzetvan Todorov books that I am certain of: Facing the Extreme, Imperfect Garden, and Hope and Memory. I have enjoyed them all, even when I have not entirely agreed with him.

I decided to pick this up now as I am taking a class this semester in Enlightenment Literature, or, more specifically on Anglo-American Enlightenment literature. Todorov focuses on the French Enlightenment, understandably; he has lived in France since 1963. Certainly, a few other thinkers from Germany, England, and America crop up but the vast majority of references are to French thinkers.

I read this book, in essence, twice between 3 February and 5 March 2012. I read a chapter or two and then I went back and reread and took my notes, leapfrogging slightly ahead with my reading over my note taking.

I have decided to count it as a Two-Thirds Book Challenge book as it is directly applicable to my current interests, it is a fairly meaty book for its length, and, as I said, I read it twice.

I wanted to like this book more than I did. It’s not bad but it seemed a little narrow-minded, or defensive, perhaps. And, yes, I am fully aware that it is supposed to be a defense; but, there is a fine line between making a defense and being defensive.

Contents:

  • Introductory Note
  • 1 The Project
  • 2 Rejections and Distortions
  • 3 Autonomy
  • 4 Secularism
  • 5 Truth
  • 6 Humanity
  • 7 Universality
  • 8 The Enlightenment and Europe
  • A Note of Conclusion
  • Notes

The physical book (hardbound) is a nice artifact, well edited, no typos, with good margins, but no index.

§ Introductory Note

“… I set out here to outline the key points of Enlightenment thought, without losing sight of our times, in a continual back-and-forth movement between past and present” (2).

§ The Project

Trying to define the Enlightenment project is difficult for two reasons: (1) It “was a period of culmination, recapitulation and synthesis, not one of radical innovation”; and (2) “Enlightenment thinking was formulated by a great many individuals who, far from agreeing with one another, were constantly engaged in bitter discussions, from one country to another and within each country” (3-4).

Three ideas form the basis of the Enlightenment project, according to Todorov:

  1. autonomy
  2. the human end is the purpose of our acts
  3. universality (4-5)

“[W]hat we need today is to re-establish Enlightenment thinking in a way that preserves the past heritage while subjecting it to a critical examination, lucidly assessing it in light of its wanted and unwanted consequences. … [I]t is through criticism that we remain faithful and put its teaching into practice” (23).

§ Rejections and Distortions

Enlightenment thinking was the subject of much criticism, particularly from the civil and church authorities that were being challenged (25). Many criticisms were directed against caricatures of Enlightenment thought, while some simply misread its spirit, Todorov tells us.

But this is one of the weak points of the book; Todorov told us earlier that many different and disparate voices vehemently disagreed about what exactly was the Enlightenment project but throughout the rest of the book he gives us a pretty straightforward account, claiming that such-and-such is the Enlightenment view of each topic that he covers. But it simply is not that easy. While I agree with him in general outline most of the time, the discussions he provides really need to be more complicated and nuanced. Perhaps that would lengthen the account but if one is going to defend the Enlightenment then one should do it well and not use an oversimplified caricature of Enlightenment thought.

I do think he does a decent job of showing how various ideas that pass for a fairly mainstream view of the Enlightenment are actually distortions of it, and how these ideas were often bastardized in the employment of dubious, and much worse, ends.

§ Autonomy

Twofold movement: “a negative movement of liberation from norms imposed from the outside and a positive movement of construction of new norms of our own devising” (41).

Discusses various forms and kinds of autonomy, such as collective vs, individual, of thought, opinion, etc., and its abuses by thinkers such as de Sade. Some of the possible conflicts between demands for collective autonomy and individual autonomy discussed include:

  • education as indoctrination (50)
  • economic globalization (51)
  • international terrorism (51-2)
  • mass media (53)
  • influence of fashion / spirit of the age/place (53-5)
  • public opinion (54-5)
  • advertising (55)

 § Secularism

Discusses various forms of temporal vs. spiritual power and what exactly secularism is. Other threats discussed are the family, Communism, Nazism and fascism. As Todorov tells us, “The enemies of a secular society are many” (70). Several pages discuss the role of the sacred in a secular society, and it does have one.

§ Truth

Distinguishes between two types of acts and discourses, those that aim for the good and those that aim for truth (77). Also discusses dangers to truth.

“The political life in a republic and the autonomy of its citizens are threatened by two symmetrical opposing dangers: moralism and scientism. Moralism reigns when the good prevails over truth and, under the pressure of the will, facts become malleable materials. Scientism carries the day when values seem to proceed from knowledge and political choices are passed off as scientific deductions” (82-3).

The scientism that arose, and is still with us, was opposed by some Enlightenment thinkers like Montesquieu, Rousseau (85). Some of the dangers of scientism discussed include:

  • 20th-century totalitarianism and the elimination of ‘inferior’ races and/or reactionary classes (86)
  • the temptation to rely on ‘experts’ to formulate moral norms or political objectives (86)
  • the sociobiological’ project (86)
  • heterogeneity in the paths to knowledge (87-8).

Moralism is, of course, much older than the Enlightenment and its dangers are also discussed.

Todorov writes, “Truth cannot dictate the good but neither should it be subjugated to it. Scientism and moralism are both alien to the spirit of the Enlightenment. But a third danger exists, and that is that the very notion of truth be considered irrelevant. … [The challenge to truth in totalitarian regimes] is that the very distinction between truth and falsehood, between truth and fiction, became superfluous in light of the purely pragmatic considerations of usefulness and convenience” (91-2)

He then goes on to show several examples in the US where truth is subjugated to “usefulness and convenience” in the very late 20th-century/early 21st (92-4). We would do well to think about these kinds of issues. And, yes, he slams present day France repeatedly throughout the book, too.

§ Humanity

Discusses how the shift of the human to the center was practically Copernican; “Not surprisingly this reversal elicited strong opposition from those who defended the existing hierarchy, from Bonald to John Paul II” (103).

de Sade is again mentioned in this chapter for his distortions of Enlightenment views.

§ Universality

Discusses equality and human rights, along with challenges to them such as the death penalty, political correctness, and relativism.

§ The Enlightenment and Europe

Discusses why the Enlightenment happened where and when it did considering that none of its ideas were particularly new, and some went back thousands of years.

“The lesson of the Enlightenment consists in saying that plurality can give rise to a new unity in at least three ways: it encourages tolerance through emulation; it develops and protected a critical spirit; and it facilitates self-detachment, which leads to a superior integration of the self and the other” (143-44)

§ A Note of Conclusion

On why the Enlightenment still holds relevance today:

“The reason for its topicality is twofold: we are all children of the Enlightenment, even when we attack it; at the same time, the ills fought by the spirit of the Enlightenment turned out to be more resistant than eighteenth-century theorists thought. They have grown even more numerous. The traditional adversaries of the Enlightenment — obscurantism, arbitrary authority and fanaticism — are like the heads of the Hydra that keep growing back as they are cut. This is because they draw their strength from characteristics of human beings and societies that are as ineradicable as the desire for autonomy and dialogue. … Added to this are modern distortions of the Enlightenment, in the form of scientism, individualism, radical desacralization, loss of meaning and wholesale relativism, to name a few” (149-50).

The Enlightenment may be history but it is still extremely relevant today. Enlightenment thinking was highly complex, and it was disputed by those within and without the project. It deserves not to be oversimplified.

This is a decent book and it was worth reading, but it is flawed by simplification where there should have been complexity.

Two-Thirds Book Challenge Update 4

This is the 3rd update to the Two-Thirds book Challenge.

2/3 Book Challenge: A Visit from the Goon Squad

E read this for her book club back in November but didn’t get the review posted until early January. She has been having a legitimately busy life the last several months. Hopefully things will calm down for her soon.

“I can say definitively that [Jennifer] Egan is a master storyteller. A Visit from the Goon Squad weaves in and out of time, with a number of stories told in layers, folding and unfolding onto themselves.”

“I wish I’d written this review closer to finishing the book – or to my book club’s discussion – as there are aspects of it that we found problematic that I’ve since forgotten.”

“And in that exchange lies the weight of the book, the way we measure the passage of time, all of the things we want to say but can’t, all of the things we try to say but fail to communicate, all of the moments in time that slip through our fingers.”

Sounds intriguing; see her review for more details.

Jen

Eleven Minutes, Paulo Coelho

“I read his book The Alchemist sometime in the last year or two and liked it. His writing is simple in quite a beautiful way. I like simplicity. I get lost in lyricism and can’t uncover deeper meanings. Coelho is right up my alley, but I don’t think that I could tear through his books one after the other. … In Eleven Minutes Coelho delves into love and prostitution, through the eyes of the young and beautiful Maria. Ah, love.”

Jen says she is too jaded for the love story here but I wonder if it wasn’t perhaps the storytelling. There are many ways to tell of love, and only a very few approach the sublimity of being in love.

The Violets of March, Sarah Jio

The Violets of March, …, is a delicious meal laid out stunningly on the table.”

“What a wonderful book. Romance and mystery (not a murder mystery–an historical mystery), beautifully woven together.”

“It’s the characters, not the romance, that will stick with me for a while. I’ll wonder about them and what they’re up to, the way I do with old friends I haven’t spoken with in a while.”

Jen references her comment in her previous review about being jaded, which has, perhaps, not been mitigated by this book but temporarily overcome.

Yes, Jen, some of us do use our amazon wish lists like that. By the way, you can put a comment, link, etc. in the notes for each item on your wish list to help keep track of just that issue. I try to do so when I read a review somewhere; it helps if I can go back 6 months or 2 years later and see why I once thought I wanted a title and to get some additional (original) input into whether it still speaks to me.

Mark

Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces

“This is the 4th book that I have finished in my Two-Thirds Book Challenge. I started it 6 October 2011 and finished it 15 January 2012. I had not intended to take so long but it is somewhat complex and, in all honesty, the rampant Freudianism/psychoanalysis is simply too much at times.”

But it is a classic text and I do believe it is worth reading.

Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return

“The gist is a comparison of how primitive or archaic humans viewed history versus how historical man views history. For archaic human, Eliade claims, everything that mattered—that had meaning—was a repeat of an archetype of some previous event or action in ‘primordial’ time, and that these things were endlessly repeated as the world was, in fact, repeatedly re-created anew.”

Modern, historical, humans have lost that which then leads us straight into the “terror of history,” a form of existential crisis.

I found this an excellent and engaging book, which, for me, generated as many questions as it may have answered. I like that.

Stay tuned for next month’s installment and good reading, whatever that may be for you!

 

 

 

Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return

This is the 5th book that I have read for My Two-Thirds Book Challenge.

I stated at the end of my review of Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces that I hoped that this might be a good follow-up book to Campbell and I have to say that I think it was. It is certainly a different project than Campbell’s but it dovetails nicely.

Contents:

      • Introduction to the 2005 Edition by Jonathan Z. Smith
      • Foreword
      • Preface
      • Chap. 1: Archetypes and Repetition
        • § The Problem
        • § Celestial Archetypes of Territories, Temples, and Cities
        • § The Symbolism of the Center
        • § Repetition of the Cosmogony
        • § Divine Models of Rituals
        • § Archetypes of Profane Activities
        • § Myths and History
      • Chap. 2: The Regeneration of Time
        • § Year, New Year, Cosmogony
        • § Periodicity of the Creation
        • § Continuous Regeneration of Time
      • Chap. 3: Misfortune and History
        • § Normality of Suffering
        • § History Regarded as Theophany
        • § Cosmic Cycles and History
        • § Destiny and History
      • Ch. 4: The Terror of History
        • § Survival of the Myth of Eternal Return
        • § The Difficulties of Historicism
        • § Freedom and History
        • § Despair or Faith
      • Bibliography
      • Index

This is a fairly complicated book but I found it in no way tiresome to read, as I often did Campbell. Is it more “true” than Campbell? I don’t think we can ever know that but most of it is certainly plausible. My biggest concern, as it is in many areas, is can we really get into the head of archaic man? So many things were so different then than how they are, or have been for a good while, for any of us that can read (or could have written) this book.

The gist is a comparison of how primitive or archaic humans viewed history versus how historical man views history. For archaic human, Eliade claims, everything that mattered—that had meaning—was a repeat of an archetype of some previous event or action in ‘primordial’ time, and that these things were endlessly repeated as the world was, in fact, repeatedly re-created anew.

“The essential theme of my investigation bears on the image of himself formed by the man of the archaic societies and on the place he assumes in the Cosmos. The chief difference between the man of the archaic and traditional societies and the man of the modern societies with their strong imprint of Judaeo-Christianity lies in the fact that the former feels himself indissolubly connected with the Cosmos, whereas the latter insists that he is connected only with History. …” xxvii-xxviii

“The reader will remember that they [traditional civilizations] defended themselves against it [history], either by periodically abolishing it through repetition of the cosmogony and a periodic regeneration of time or by giving historical events a metahistorical meaning, a meaning that was not only consoling but was above all coherent, that is, capable of being fitted into a well-consolidated system in which the cosmos and man’s existence had each its raison d’être.” 142

The Hebrews, with their faith in Yahweh and their interpretation of events being a manifestation of His will, gave us ‘history.’ This view evolves over time, eventually leading to historicism.

“Thus, for the first time, the [Hebrew] prophets placed a value on history, succeeded in transcending the traditional vision of the cycle (the conception that ensure all things will be repeated forever), and discovered a one-way time. This discovery was not to be immediately and fully accepted by the consciousness of the entire Jewish people, and the ancient conceptions were still long to survive.” 104

“It may, then, be said with truth that the Hebrews were the first to discover the meaning of history as the epiphany of God, and this conception, as we should expect, was taken up and amplified by Christianity.

We may even ask ourselves if monotheism, based upon the direct and personal revelation of the divinity, does not necessarily entail the “salvation” of time, its value within the frame of history.” 104

“From the seventeenth century on, linearism and the progressivistic conception of history assert themselves more and more, inaugurating faith in an infinite progress, a faith already proclaimed by Leibniz, predominant in the century of “enlightenment,” and popularized in the nineteenth century by the triumph of the ideas of the evolutionists. We must wait until our own century to see the beginnings of certain new reactions against this historical linearism and a certain revival of interest in the theory of cycles; …” 145-46

The problem for modern man is one of existentialism, although that term is never used. It is, though, described in the text in places.

“For our purpose, only one question concerns us: How can the “terror of history” be tolerated from the viewpoint of historicism? Justification of a historical event by the simple fact that it is a historical event, in other words, by the simple fact that it “happened that way,” will not go far toward freeing humanity from the terror that the event inspires.” 150

What is interesting, and Eliade points towards it even in 1949, is that there is a nostalgia, a return even, towards the archaic view of history.

“Some pages earlier, we noted various recent orientations that tend to reconfer value upon the myth of cyclical periodicity, even the myth of eternal return. … …, it is worth noting that the work of two of the most significant writers of our day–T. S. Eliot and James Joyce–is saturated with nostalgia for the myth of eternal repetition and, in the last analysis, for the abolition of time.” 153

I think this kind of thinking is also reflected in the current interest in the Mayan calendar and 2012, in various forms of magical thinking like that involved in the Singularity, and other views and ideas floating around in early 21st-century consumer culture. I would really love to have Eliade’s take on this.

Eliade’s analysis leads him to claim that Christianity is the answer modern man has arrived at to combat the “terror of history.”

“But we are able to observe here and now that such a position [historicist] affords a shelter from the terror of history only insofar as it postulates the existence at least of the Universal Spirit. What consolation should we find in knowing that the sufferings of millions of men have made possible the revelation of a limitary situation of the human condition if, beyond that limitary situation, there should be only nothingness?” 159-60

“In this respect, Christianity incontestibly proves to be the religion of “fallen man”: and this to the extent which modern man is irremediably identified with history and progress, and to which history and progress are a fall, both implying the final abandonment of the paradise of archetypes and repetition.” 162

Personally, this leaves me unsatisfied. I am not sure that this is simply an objective (or as objective as possible) analysis or whether it is the answer Eliade wanted. Throughout most of the book, and even in the final clause above [the final sentence of the book], he seems to be more positively drawn towards the archaic human view than that of the modern, historical human.

I wonder whether the existential crisis is not simply overstated here, as it is in many places. Or perhaps it was more of a crisis when this book was written; it was certainly more of a ‘movement’ then than now. Perhaps 21st-century humans, at least those of us living our lives in our blogs and on twitter and so on, are simply too busy to feel the ‘crisis’ as deeply.

Something from the foreword which I fully agree would be a good thing:

“Our chief intent has been to set forth certain governing lines of force in the speculative field of archaic societies. It seemed to us that a simple presentation of this field would not be without interest, especially for the philosopher accustomed to finding his problems and the mean of solving them in the texts of classic philosophy or in the spiritual history of the West. With us, it is an old conviction that Western philosophy is dangerously close to “provincializing” itself … by its obstinate refusal to recognize any “situations” except those of the man of the historical civilizations, in defiance of the experience of “primitive” man, of man as a member of the traditional societies. … Better yet: that the cardinal problems of metaphysics could be renewed through a knowledge of archaic ontology.” xxiv

There are some interesting comments in a couple of places regarding the views of the elites (particularly the educated/intellectual elite) vs. the common person that I found intriguing, and that speak to related issues of today.

I imagine that I will revisit this work in the future. I am not entirely sure I understood everything Eliade claims; in fact, I know I didn’t. Another read might not fully solve that issue but it would help immensely I imagine. And I do think some interesting work on current culture could be done with the framework he has outlined here.

Recommended.

Scholes, English After the Fall

Disclaimer: I received an uncorrected proof copy of this book as part of the Library Thing Early Reviewer Program.

I read this book from 23 Nov – 13 Dec 2011 and the bottom line is that I enjoyed it and recommend it.

Contents:

  • Prologue: English after the fall
  • Ch. 1: Literature and its others
  • Ch. 2: The limiting concept of literature
  • Ch. 3: Textuality and the teaching of reading
  • Ch. 4: Textual power—sacred reading
  • Ch. 5: Textual pleasure—profane reading
  • Epilogue: A sample program in textuality
  • A Note on Sources
  • Works Consulted
  • Index [missing in this uncorrected proof copy]

This book is a follow-on to his previous book, The Rise and Fall of English, which he claims “came about because of the alluring but ultimately fatal choice of literature as the central object of the English curriculum” (xiii). I have not read that book but will probably do so now; I will certainly be looking into other books and writings by Robert Scholes.

I have included a fair few quotes from the book to give you an idea of his style.

Prologue: English After the Fall

The Prologue gives us an overview of how the book came about, what the Fall of English is, provides a quick overview of the argument for “textuality,” provides Scholes’ qualifications and interests in this arena, and outlines the rest of the book.

“This book is simply a profession of faith in that fallen field of studies and an attempt to suggest a direction for its future” (xiii).

“The fall of English is actually part of the fall of all the humanities in a world that is driven by technological progress and the bottom line” (xiv-xv).

“In the case of English, the more obviously useful features of the field have been relegated to the bottom of the reward system, …. What is needed, as I understand the situation, is a broader reconsideration of the purpose of English studies. We need to see the main function of English departments as helping students become better users of the language—basically, better readers and writers. Literary works have a role to play in this function, but they are a means to, not the end of, studies in English, though they have often been treated as the end. In this book, I want to make the case for a shift in the field—from privileging literature to studying a wide range of texts in a wide range of media—so that what I call “textuality” can become the main concern of English departments” (xv, emphasis mine).

English as an academic field and the rise of such departments is about a century old. They replaced departments of rhetoric and took students from classical studies (xv-xvi) and this change coincided with the rise of modernism in literature and other arts (xvi).

Outline:

  • history of ‘literature’
  • how a constricted notion of literature contributes to the fragmentation of the field
  • expanded field of textuality
  • illustration 1: the sacred
  • illustration 2: the profane

The prologue is quite understandable and provided me a bit of enthusiastic anticipation for what followed.

Ch. 1: Literature and Its Others

This chapter provides a rapid-fire intellectual/conceptual history of the concept of ‘literature.’ While it was interesting, it was not at all as clear as I had hoped it would be. This is definitely the weakest link in the book and its argument. Thankfully, it really isn’t required for the argument in any serious way; although it could certainly strengthen the argument if done well.

Intellectual history, and its close kin conceptual history (Begriffsgeschichte), are my favorite kinds of history and I was highly interested in learning about the concept and idea of ‘literature’ as it has developed. Sadly, I am still pretty much in the dark after reading this romp of a chapter. I do understand Scholes giving just under 10% of the text to this chapter, seeing as it isn’t really fundamental to his argument, but I am still disappointed. Thankfully, this is really my only disappointment with the book.

Ch. 2: The Limiting Concept of Literature

Discusses the limits put on the concept of ‘literature’ within English departments and how that constrains what is taught.

“At the simplest level, as we have seen, this literary designation may rule excellent written texts out of consideration in our basic courses in reading, writing, and thinking. And that is one reason why we need to free ourselves from a restricted notion of literature” (23).

“We would not deny that certain kinds of texts, like instructions, are usually very low on the literary scale, but we all believe that there is a scale, and that there are poems, plays, stories, and expository texts all along that scale. This scale is a measure of a quality we may call “literariness” (which I would define as a combination of textual pleasure and power), but it is neither easy nor right to draw a line across the scale at some point and call everything on one side of the line literature” (24-5).

Provides a couple examples of the literary used for other forms of teaching and of the ‘nonliterary’ as examples of the literary.

Ch. 3: Textuality and the Teaching of Reading

(Some) problems with the restricted notion of reading:

  • “you can read it but you can’t write it”
  • “led to the separation of the study of reading/literature … from the study of writing/composition”
  • led to hierarchical structure of faculty
  • “further split between those kinds of writing that can be designated as ‘creative’ and those that cannot.”
  • “now have programs claiming creative status for certain sorts of writing not included in the restricted notion of literature, like the personal essay.”
  • “tied too tightly to the book”
  • “tied to a narrow view of what makes a text creative or literary”
  • “prevents us from demonstrating in our classrooms the relevance of the texts we cherish to the actual lives of our students” (33-34)

To solve these problems we need to redefine English as the study of textuality rather than literature. Such a redefinition has a number of aspects, but it begins with the recognition that English is all about teaching—not research—and that this teaching has two main branches: reading and writing. That is, the business of English departments is to help students improve as readers and writers, to become better producers and consumers of texts” (34, emphasis mine).

Scholes claims that “textuality has two aspects:”

  1. “broadening of the objects we study and teach to include all of the media and modes of expression.”
  2. “changing the way we look at texts to combine the perspectives of creator and consumer, writer and reader” (35).

“The basic purpose of humanistic education is to give students perspectives on their own cultural situation, opening the past so that they can connect it to the present” (35-6).

“…, we must find ways to make what students actually want and need more rewarding for their teachers, and we must find ways of making what teachers wish to teach more interesting and useful for those who may come to them for instruction. The solution, in my view, is to put these two aspects of English education back together. That is, teachers must not simply advise students how to consume texts but help them understand how these texts were constructed in the first place. The study of textuality involves looking at works that function powerfully in our world, and considering both what they mean and how they mean” (37).

“Cultural studies have actually been a part of the English curriculum for a while now. I am suggesting that English departments move these studies to the center of the historical dimension of their enterprise, using the connections between contemporary audiovisual media and the earlier print media as a way into our cultural past. This action also means historicizing cultural studies, …” (47).

“If English teachers can accept the responsibility to teach all aspects of textuality—the production, consumption, and history of texts in English—we will have a curriculum that can be competitive in an academic world in which the humanities have been marginalized.
In what follows in this book I take up some of these issues and pursue them to greater depths, concluding with some attempts to illustrate the kind of cultural work I think we should be doing, using the full range of texts available to us in the realm of textuality” (48).

He lays out and considers 3 levels or phases of reading, which are also further considered in rest of the book:

  1. Reaction – personal response
  2. Interpretation
  3. Criticism (50-2)

Ch. 4: Textual Power—Sacred Reading

“… we should treat all texts held to be sacred with interpretational respect. That is, we must see them as attempts to present a true version of events or a valid way of life, even if they seem to contradict our own views. Which does not mean that we need to believe any of them—even our own. Respect is different from belief” (53, emphasis mine).

Sacred reading includes both main sources of sacred texts: religions and governments.

Several sections are included in this chapter:

  • The Nature of Sacred Texts
  • A Fundamental Problem
  • A Failure to Communicate
  • Lots of Folks Forget That Part of It

Nature:

“To simply make sense of it [notion of 'sacredness'] in a basic way, however, we must perform an imaginative act, which tells us, I believe, that no text can be perfectly sacred in actuality—precisely because it is a text” (57)

US political sacred documents are “ideal for the study of interpretation” because we do know a lot about who wrote them and how they were composed (59).

Fundamental:

“One of the main functions of textual education is to help people learn how to see things from more than one perspective, and to understand that these perspectives are not exactly matters of choice for many people, but ways in which they have been conditioned to see the world. ‘To see ourselves as others see us’ is important, but so is the ability to see others as they see themselves” (61).

“The textualist reader, then, must acknowledge the seriousness of fundamentalist readings, while resisting and criticizing the zeal that often results in interpretive leaps to an unearned certainty of meaning, achieved by turning a deaf ear to the complexity of the texts themselves, their histories, and their present situations” (63).

“them, there, then” ==> “us, here, now” “… “we must try to determine the text’s proper bearing on our own values and our conduct in the world” (71).

Ch. 5: Textual Pleasure—Profane Reading

“All texts that are not accorded sacred status may be considered profane—especially if we can do away with the semi-sacred category of literature” (89).

Focuses on musical drama and, in particular, opera in this chapter.

“Because performative works depend on audiences, the question of what they mean to “us, here, now” gains in importance. We live in a performative world, which is another reason why we should pay special attention to enacted stories in our classrooms” (92).

This chapter also has several sections:

  • Sacred versus Profane on Screen and Stage in the Twenties
  • Can’t Help It
  • Nobody’s Perfect
  • I’ve Become Lost to the World
  • The Pleasurable Pains of Opera
  • Send in the Clowns
  • Put on the Clown Suit
  • It Ain’t Over ‘Till the Fat Lady Sings

This chapter focused a lot on performance and roles.

Epilogue: A Sample Program in Textuality

“The essential matter for teachers of textuality is to get the interpretation of sacred texts into the curriculum, and to help students take pleasurable texts seriously—and to care about both the texts and the students” (142).

He ends with a “suggestion for a core of courses to be followed by advanced work drawn from whatever curriculum is already in a given institution” (142).

Most of these courses probably already exist, at least in title and with some applicable content. They would need to be restructured to focus on the textuality of the, hopefully, broadened range of texts used to comprise the content. I do see this as a totally doable venture, though.

Recommended! In particular, I feel that, at a minimum, the following folks could benefit from reading and thinking about this text: Lit majors [all languages], writing majors, and humanists of all stripes including digital humanists. This includes everyone from undergrads and their parents, through grad students on up to professors, department chairs and anyone else involved with or concerned with curriculum of literature(s) and writing.

This is a short but, nonetheless, important book. It is a quick read but supplies plenty to think about and act on.

Reading One to Ten (meme)

Cribbed from Angel at The Itinerant Librarian.

1 The book I am currently reading. Like Angel, I usually have more than one book going. I am currently reading the following: The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore; Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces; Hermann Melville’s Billy Budd and other stories; and about a half dozen others that I have been stopped on for a while now.

2 The last book I finished. Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire. Last night. My comments are here.

3 The next book I want to read. Again, ditto Angel, “there are all sorts of books I want to read next.” There are two books from the Library Thing Early Reviewer Program that need to be read so that I can write reviews: Delavier’s Stretching Anatomy and Gerhard Klosch’s Sleeping Better Together. I will probably take the stretching book with me on our trip to DC to visit family for Christmas. Then there are the books on my Two-Thirds Book Challenge list: Transformations (poems) by Anne Sexton is near the top of the list due to my Grimm’s Fairytales class starting in early January. Not on that list but recently purchased is Voltaire’s A Pocket Philosophical Dictionary, which I’d like to read prior to Enlightenment Lit in the Spring term. I could go on and on here but I’ll stop. My goodread’s to read shelf would give you a small inkling of possibilities.

4 The last book I bought. On the 10th I bought Voltaire’s A Pocket Philosophical Dictionary (Oxford World’s Classic ed) in a Kindle ed. and I ordered a used copy of Tzvetan Todorov’s A Defence of the Enlightenment from England via abebooks. I have been wanting that book for quite a while now and it is already out of print. I foresee wanting/needing it for Enlightenment Lit for whatever paper topic I choose. I adore Todorov even though I don’t always agree with him. And Voltaire is simply delectable!

5 The last book I was given. Not counting Library Thing Early Reviewer books or books weeded from the collection at BCU, it appears the last book I was given was a copy of Jeni Bauer’s Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams by my daughter for Father’s Day. Eat Jeni’s ice cream! Support Jeni’s! Buy this book and make your own Jeni’s! Did I mention you should eat Jeni’s ice cream? It is beyond awesome!

6 The last book I borrowed from the library. Public: Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Traveled, which I did not finish but put on my wish list. University: Nobel Prize winner Tomas Tranströmer’s Selected Poems, and Truth Barriers.

8 The last translated book you read. Lysistrata, and the Tranströmers just before that, in November.

9 The book at the top of my Christmas list. Like Angel, the list is not exactly specific to one title but the short list I culled from my Amazon wish list for the more immediate family included: Barbara McAfee’s Full Voice: The Art and Practice of Vocal Presence (seen in GradHacker); James Attlee’s Nocturne: A Journey in Search of Moonlight; Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer; Douglas Thomas’ A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change; Gloria Ambrosia’s The Complete Muffin Cookbook: The Ultimate Guide To Making Great Muffins; Borges’ Selected Non-Fictions; Tolkien on Fairy-Stories; Mircea Eliade’s Myths, Dreams and Mysteries. These are all titles both Sara and I would like to read. If I were compiling that list today instead of just a couple of weeks ago it might be quite different as we both have added several (or more) titles to our wish lists. ::sigh::

10 The so-far unpublished book I am most looking forward to reading. Normally, I rarely know about books before they are published unless Amazon manages to send me a timely pre-order email. But. Kickstarter! We helped fund a book on Kickstarter recently so we are looking forward to Kio Stark’s, Don’t Go Back to School: A handbook for learning anything.

Jacobs. The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction

The pleasures of reading in an age of distraction The pleasures of reading in an age of distractionAlan Jacobs; Oxford University Press 2011WorldCatRead OnlineLibraryThingGoogle BooksBookFinder 

 

I read this aloud to Sara (and myself) from 22 May – 8 June. I quite enjoyed this book despite being familiar with some of the author’s argument due to reading his blog Text Patterns at The New Atlantis.  I recommend his blog.

Jacobs is the author of several books:

  • The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction
  • The Age of Anxiety, by W. H. Auden — a critical edition
  • Wayfaring: Essays Pleasant and Unpleasant
  • Original Sin: a Cultural History
  • Looking Before and After: Testimony and the Christian Life
  • The Narnian: the Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis
  • Shaming the Devil: Essays in Truthtelling
  • A Theology of Reading: the Hermeneutics of Love
  • A Visit to Vanity Fair: Moral Essays on the Present Age
  • What Became of Wystan: Change and Continuity in Auden’s Poetry [See his tumbler for links to all of them: http://ayjay.tumblr.com/ ]

I have a copy of Original Sin: a Cultural History from the library and am looking forward to reading it soon. Shaming the Devil and Wayfaring are also on my list to read. Perhaps I oughtn’t mention my TBR list as Jacobs’ has quite a bit to say about lists as he isn’t particularly a fan of them. His dislike goes more toward the lists of books that one ought read. I’m not so sure he’d be as anti to lists which are based on one’s own personal Whim and which remain fluid. Even if he is, I find my list to be quite useful for keeping track of things I am interested in. If by the time I might get to something I am no longer interested, or more likely less interested in it than in something that has come to my attention more recently, so be it. My list is nothing if not fluid.

The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction

The author’s “commitment [is] to one dominant, overarching, nearly definitive principle for reading: Read at Whim!” (15). Later in the book, he distinguishes between whim and Whim.

In its lower-case version, whim is thoughtless, directionless preference that almost invariably leads to boredom or frustration or both. But Whim is something very different: it can guide us because it is based in self-knowledge— …. (41)

The book is prefaced with a warning, if you will, to its potential readers.

Caveat lector : Those who have always disliked reading, or who have been left indifferent by it, may find little of interest here. But those who have caught a glimpse of what reading can give—pleasure, wisdom, joy—even if that glimpse came long ago, are the audience for whom this book was written ([vii])

I believe this is apropos. This book is for readers, especially those feeling like they have either lost their connection to reading or, at a minimum, are finding it difficult to concentrate and engage in reading in this day and age.

Many of the usual suspects are to be found here: Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, Nicholas Carr, Harold Bloom, Steven Pinker, Charles Dickens, Edward Gibbon, Rudyard Kipling, William James, Cory Doctorow, David Foster Wallace, Abbot Hugh of St. Victor, Clay Shirky, George Steiner, Ann Blair, W.H. Auden, and many others.

There are a lot of intriguing ideas to be found in this volume. For instance:

  • 3 lessons taught by humility for the reader: hold no writing or knowledge in contempt; not blush to learn from anyone; when has attained learning, not look down on anyone else. (Abbot Hugh, 92)
  • Deep attention reading has always been a minority pursuit (106);  teaching of vernacular literature in university only ~150 years old (106); “the reading class” artificially high from 1945-2000 (107)
  • the idea that one of the purposes of education is to instill a love of reading “is largely alien to the history of education” and of reading (113).

All in all, I found this an enlightening and entertaining read. While personally I feel a bit of the pull of distractions away from my pleasurable, long form, reading, I also know full well that the choice is mine. I can choose to step away from the technologically-generated “blooming, buzzing confusion” or not. I can choose to engage with the sustained thought of another or to allow myself to be psychologically conditioned to become unable to do so. I know which outcome I choose. Alan Jacobs makes an eloquent case for that choice if you find yourself as a reader needing some gentle help in making yours.

My main complaint is that I found his many asides/tangents distracting. Sara mentioned that perhaps that it was an artifact of the reading aloud. As in, reading to myself would be quicker and I would be able to keep the part prior to the aside/tangent in mind better so that it more easily matched up with the part of the sentence after the aside/tangent. Perhaps. Lord knows I use more than my fair share of asides/tangents in this blog and sometimes even in my academic papers.

So I’m not trying to be the pot calling the kettle black here and I did find that the asides/tangents often contained valuable information. It was just that the experience of reading through them distracted me and I often had to go back to the beginning of a sentence and reread it without the aside to make sense of it. I should mention that the book is written in a very conversational tone generally.

After looking back through the book, I believe that Sara is correct that it was my experience of reading aloud. She said she rarely felt confused by them and upon searching for specific examples I found it hard to find any good ones, although they seemed fairly prevalent while I was reading aloud. It seems the process of reading silently to myself while looking for them is an entirely different experience. Then again, I had read them once (and twice, often) already. Perhaps that is part of it.

A second minor issue I had is definitely my own fault. At the end of the book is “An Essay on Sources.” Now I should know enough to check the apparatus of each individual book before beginning it but I did not. Then again, a book that has footnotes seems like it would be clearer about its supporting apparatus. In the end, though, it is my own fault. Reading the source comments on each section as we respectively finished them would have been more useful than reading the comments for the whole book at the end. Perhaps I’ve learned a lesson.

Third, no index. I know not everyone uses or believes in indexes but they still serve a purpose; actually they serve several purposes. I have had need of one while writing this review (and my review is less than I wanted as I was unable to find what I was looking for) and no doubt I will have need of one in the future when I consult the book again. Even if this were an ebook it would still need an index. Full-text searchability would help but that is still not a conceptual index and can only find the strings that exist and not the concepts expressed via another string.

Sections:

  • Yes, we can!
  • Whim
  • All in your head
  • Aspirations
  • Upstream
  • Responsiveness
  • Kindling
  • Slowly, slowly
  • True confessions
  • Lost
  • Abbot Hugh’s advice
  • The triumphant return of Adler and Van Doren
  • Plastic attention
  • Getting schooled
  • Quiet, please
  • Once more, with feeling
  • Judge, jury, executioner
  • In solitude, for company
  • Serendip
  • How it all started
  • An Essay on Sources

Summary: This was quite enjoyable; learned, yet casual, supportive and forgiving. If you are or, once, were a reader, you will find enjoyment and comradeship in this slim volume to help ease some of the anxiety you may be feeling in this age of distractions.

Lastly, for another, and a more ‘professional,’ review of this book see On the Desire to Be Well-Read by Timothy Aubry at The Millions. Honestly, professional or not, this is a sad little review and shows far more of the author’s personal issues with reading for pleasure than it serves as a review of the book Jacobs’ wrote. See the comment by Dan for a good refutation of the points in Aubry’s ‘review.’