The only advice … that one person can give another about reading is to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your own conclusions. If this is agreed between us, then I feel at the liberty to put forward a few ideas and suggestions because you will not allow them to fetter that independence which is the most important quality that a reader can possess. After all, what laws can be laid down about books? The battle of Waterloo was certainly fought on a certain day; but is Hamlet a better play than Lear? Nobody can say. Each must decide that question for himself. To admit authorities, however heavily furred and gowned, into our libraries and let them tell us how to read, what to read, what value to place upon what we read, is to destroy the spirit of freedom which is the breath of those sanctuaries. Everywhere else we may be bound by laws and conventions—there we have none.
This from Virginia Woolf, "How Should One Read a Book?" She wrote the essay in 1925, published it in the collection The Second Common Reader. Not an obscure passage, by any means, frequently quoted, but with good reason. I think "authorities, however heavily furred and gowned" is particularly fine and fierce.
I have read at every opportunity since I was 6 years old. My father once assembled all the images from his slide archive that pictured either my mother or me, and in almost all of those that include Boy Dale, I am reading a book. No matter what is going on around me—family visit, picnic, patio party, lounging on the lawn—I am bent over one volume or another. As an adult, I will not leave for a trip of any duration without at least a couple of books in my luggage. On the road, I buy more.
Does having read a lot of books make me well read? Depends on how the terms are defined. For a man with two degrees, one of them a graduate degree in liberal arts from an elite institution, I have some striking lacunae in my reading history. No Austen. No Balzac. No Stendhal, no Zola, no Cervantes, no Lake Poets, no Goethe, no Hugo. Little Henry James, no William James. Trollope, Bronte, Proust, Moby-Dick, or Ulysses? No. I've done better with the major Russians, and done all of Fitzgerald, all of Hemingway, much Thoreau, almost all of Conrad. Half of Edith Wharton. Homer exerts a strange hold on me, as does Basho.
Do I rate for having read (and reread) all of Bruce Chatwin, all of William Gibson, much of E.L Doctorow and Ellen Ullman, and every word by John McPhee? Not among the furred and gowned who man the velvet ropes against the conventionally unlettered. I used to be self-conscious about this. No longer. I value the recommendations of the smart and well read, but feel no need to meet a standard that has more to do with social standing than literary education. I'm sure of my aesthetic judgment and my acute awareness of what engages me and what doesn't. Life is short. I shall read what I please.
Though I do intend to take on Chekhov and Joyce and the Montaigne I've not yet read. I heed Woolf's position on the matter, but still think one should mind the gaps.
Read all of "How Should One Read a Book?" here.
Maria Popova has a typically smart take on the essay here.
Your friendly reminder that dark matter comprises 25 percent of the mass energy budget of the cosmos, while dark energy comprises 70 percent, and the normal matter that you and I are made of is just a wee 5 percent. And it’s all connected by a cosmic web of filamentary bridges that stretch across millions of light years. Carry on.
— Natalie Batalha, astrophysicist
So rumble, young musicians, rumble. Open your ears, and open your heart. Don’t take yourself too seriously, and take yourself as seriously as death itself. Don’t worry, and worry your ass off. Have unclad confidence, but then doubt. It keeps you awake and alert. Believe you are the baddest ass in town, and that you suck. It keeps you honest. Be able to keep two completely contradictory ideas alive and well inside of your heart and head at all times. If it doesn’t drive you crazy, it will make you strong. And stay hard, stay hungry, and stay alive. And when you walk onstage tonight, to bring the noise, treat it like that’s all we have. And then remember: It’s only rock and roll.
— Bruce Springsteen
After a long and arduous journey a young Japanese man arrived deep in the forest where the teacher of his choice was living in a small house he had made. When the student arrived, the teacher was sweeping up fallen leaves. Greeting his master, the young man received no greeting in return. And to all his questions, there were no replies. Realizing there was nothing he could do to get the teacher's attention, the student went to another part of the same forest and built himself a house. Years later, when he was sweeping up fallen leaves, he was enlightened. He then dropped everything, ran through the forest to his teacher, and said, "Thank you."
— John Cage, Silence
Yesterday, Vicenzo Di Nicola, a Canadian psychiatrist, published a manifesto in Aeon announcing a Slow Thought movement, stumping for the liberation of thinking from the mania for urgency, from geopolitical boundaries, from tradition and dogma, and from destination. Slow Thought is an object in itself, never complete, always contingent and improvised, "an appeal to reflection before conviction, clarity before a call to action."
In his essay, the author notes that the mode of thinking he advocates is asynchronic, structured not sequentially in conventional time but "structured by the slow logic of thought." This leads him to observe that one method of Jewish Talmudic exegesis is pilpul, described as a form of philosophical dialogue in which the argument is not constrained by the need to progress through an historical chronology, but following a logic of thought that's outside of chronological constraint, so that an ethical question posed in Moorish Spain is answered by an ancient Babylonian text from centuries before.
I suspect this does little to accurately convey pilpul, and may actually distort its meaning, but there's something in Di Nicola's explanation that I love—the idea of an answer lying patiently in wait for the right question. Of taking something known and thinking about what it means through a process of determining what question it might answer.
Di Nicola's essay resides here. Not compelling prose, but the piece has its moments.
The passage into mystery always refreshes. If, when we work, we can look once a day upon the face of mystery, then our labor satisfies. We are lightened when our gifts rise from pools we cannot fathom. Then we know they are not a solitary egotism and they are inexhaustible. Anything contained within a boundary must contain as well its own exhaustion. The most perfectly balanced gyroscope slowly winds down. But when the gift passes out of sight and then returns, we are enlivened.
— Lewis Hyde, The Gift
It’s appropriate to pause and say that the writer is one who, embarking upon a task, does not know what to do. …The not-knowing is crucial to art, is what permits art to be made. Without the possibility of having the mind move in unanticipated directions, there would be no invention.
I may have read as much about Ursula K. Le Guin as I've read of Ursula K. Le Guin. But of what I've read—three novels, a short story or two, more than a dozen essays—it has all been excellent, some of it superb. Her work bespoke a deep intelligence, a wry wit, a delight in invention, and long practice. But what has mattered more to me is her quiet but steely courage and integrity. No one stared her down. No one backed her off.
The last two days, of course, there has been much reading about her after word of her passing came out of Portland, Oregon. Much of what's being said is commonplace, because we have a common humane response when an exemplar dies. But some fine things have appeared, and even the pedestrian pieces rise when they carry Le Guin gems like this:
Interviewer: Which would you rather have, a National Book Award or a Hugo?
Le Guin: Oh, a Nobel, of course.
Interviewer: They don't give Nobel Prizes for fantasy.
Le Guin: Maybe I can do something for peace.
Read an interview with Le Guin—she was generous with her time when queried—and you'll be afforded glimpses of mischief. When Julie Phillips first contacted her for a profile in The New Yorker, Le Guin was mad about the occupation of an Oregon federal wildlife refuge by the Bundy brothers, but noted that she'd lightened her mood by following the Twitter feed #BundyEroticFanFic.
Le Guin never apologized for writing genre fiction. In a piece she wrote for The New Yorker four years before Phillips' profile, Le Guin said:
For a long time, critics and English professors declared that science fiction wasn’t literature. Most of them spoke from the modernist-realist basis of never having read any science fiction since they were twelve. They were comfortable with a judgment that allowed them to remain both superior and ignorant, and quite a few science-fiction writers accepted exile from the Republic of Letters to the ghetto of genre, perhaps because ghettos, like all gated communities, give the illusion of safety.
What a fine bit of fierceness that is. Michael Cunningham got this for Electric Lit:
Honestly, orthodoxy concerns me about as much as it concerns your average jackrabbit. I only follow rules that take me where I want to go. If there aren’t any rules, I make up my own (and follow them strictly).
And then there's this oft-quoted piece of her acceptance speech at the 2014 National Book Awards:
I rejoice in accepting [this award] for and sharing it with all the writers who were excluded from "literature" for so long—my fellow writers of fantasy and science fiction, writers of the imagination who over the past 50 years watched the beautiful awards go to the so-called "realists." I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, and see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom, poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality. Right now I think we need writers who understand the difference between the production of a market commodity and the practice of art.
Scientific American was correct when it labeled her "a complete person of letters and an important public intellectual." I can think of no better example of her leaning into the current and holding fast than her Mills College commencement address in 1983. Excerpting it does not do it justice, but savor these sentences:
Women as women are largely excluded from, alien to, the self-declared male norms of this society, where human beings are called Man, the only respectable god is male, the only direction is up. So that’s their country; let’s explore our own. I’m not talking about sex; that’s a whole other universe, where every man and woman is on their own. I’m talking about society, the so-called man’s world of institutionalized competition, aggression, violence, authority, and power. If we want to live as women, some separatism is forced upon us: Mills College is a wise embodiment of that separatism. The war-games world wasn’t made by us or for us; we can’t even breathe the air there without masks. And if you put the mask on you’ll have a hard time getting it off. So how about going on doing things our own way, as to some extent you did here at Mills? Not for men and the male power hierarchy—that’s their game. Not against men, either—that’s still playing by their rules. But with any men who are with us: that’s our game. Why should a free woman with a college education either fight Machoman or serve him? Why should she live her life on his terms?
[A sacred place] is an absolute necessity for anybody today. You must have a room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don't know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don't know who your friends are, you don't know what you owe anybody, you don't know what anybody owes to you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation. At first you may find that nothing happens there. But if you have a sacred place and use it, something eventually will happen. … Our life has become so economic and practical in its orientation that, as you get older, the claims of the moment upon you are so great, you hardly know where the hell you are, or what it is you intended. You are always doing something that is required of you. Where is your bliss station? You have to try to find it.
— Joseph Campbell
To be somewhere else, among other minds...
Last year I met a young man in his twenties who is illiterate; there are more illiterates in Kentucky than anywhere else, with the possible exception of the Philippines and Haiti. The horror of his predicament struck me first of all because it prevents his getting a job, and secondly because of the blindness it imposes on his imagination. I also realized more fully than ever before what a text is and how it can only be realized in the imagination, how mere words, used over and over for other purposes and in other contexts, can be so ordered by, say, Jules Verne, as to be deciphered as a narrative of intricate texture and splendid color, of precise meaning and values. At the time of the illiterate's importuning visits (I was trying to help him find a job) I was reading Verne's Les enfants du capitaine Grant, a geography book cunningly disguised as an adventure story, for French children, a hefty two-volume work. I had never before felt how lucky and privileged I am, not so much for being literate, a state of grace that might in different circumstances be squandered on tax forms or law books, but for being able, regularly, to get out of myself completely, to be somewhere else, among other minds, and return (by laying my book aside) renewed and refreshed.
— Guy Davenport
The essay, in [William] Gass’ view, is a great meadow of style and personal manner, freed from the need for defense except that provided by an individual intelligence and sparkle. We consent to watch a mind at work, without agreement often, but only for pleasure. Knowledge hereby attained, great indeed, is again wanted for the pleasure of itself.
Woody Guthrie's 1943 New Year's resolutions. I particularly like "wash teeth if any," "drink very scant if any," and "have company but don't waste time." Best of all is number 33—"wake up and fight."
What art is all about.
Look at #8—"write a song a day"—and #25—"play and sing good"—and #26—"dance better"—and #31—"love everybody." Look closely at that last doodle. I've been reading Seth Godin lately, and in Linchpin he wrote, "An artist is someone who uses bravery, insight, creativity, and boldness to challenge the status quo." And, "Art is a personal act of courage, something one human does that creates change in another."
Seventy-four years later, #19 resonates more than ever as an act of faith in art, hope for change, and courage: "keep hoping machine running."
Thanks to Open Culture.
- A Little History of the World, E.H. Gombrich
- The Paris Review #197
- Stories of Your Life, Ted Chiang
- Grief Is a Thing With Feathers, Max Porter
- Fifty-Two Pickup, Elmore Leonard
- Einstein’s God: Conversations about Science and the Human Spirit, Krista Tippett
- Searoad: Chronicles of Klatsand, Ursula K. Le Guin
- The Paris Review #198
- Still Writing, Dani Shapiro
- Red Shift, Alan Garner
- The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, John le Carré
- The Analyst, Molly Peacock
- Small Town Talk, Barney Hoskyns
- The Paris Review #199
- The Old Man and Me, Elaine Dundy
- Of Cats and Men, Sam Kalda
- On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, Timothy Snyder
- Woodstock: Three Days That Rocked the World, Mike Evans and Paul Kingsbury (eds.)
- A Hero of France, Alan Furst
- Dark Matters, Blake Crouch
- The Adventures of John Carson in Several Quarters of the World, Brian Doyle
- The Paris Review #200
- Tools of Titans, Tim Ferris
- The Last Samurai, Helen Dewitt
- The Correspondence, J.D. Daniels
- Nature and “The American Scholar," Ralph Waldo Emerson
- Gold Fame Citrus, Claire Vaye Watkins
- Rocannon’s World, Ursula K. LeGuin
- Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Carlo Rovelli
- The Paris Review #201
- Chocky, John Wyndham
- Waves Passing in the Night, Lawrence Weschler
- American Nations, Colin Woodard
- The Looking Glass War, John Le Carré
- The Pigeon Tunnel, John Le Carré
- Testimony, Robbie Robertson
- Lost for Words, Edward St. Aubyn
- On Looking: A Walker’s Guide to the Art of Observation, Alexandra Horowitz
- Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process, John McPhee
- The Organized Mind, Daniel J. Levitin
- American Philosophy: A Love Story, John Kaag
We arrive in the world only partially formed; a culture that has been in the making for hundreds of thousands of years will form the rest. And that culture will inevitably contain much that is noxious as well as beneficent. No one is exempt—not the Jew or the Muslim, of course, but also not the Cockney or the earl or the person whose ancestors came to America on the Mayflower or, for that matter, the person whose ancestors were Algonquins or Laplanders. Our species' cultural birthright is a mixed blessing. It is what makes us fully human, but being fully human is a difficult work in progress.
We long to lose ourselves in stories—that's who we are. Well-crafted stories transport us, allow us to soar. One day perhaps, things being close enough for all practical purposes, to soar right over the Uncanny Valley, to traverse the Cusan Divide.
I don't know. Could be.
…God invented Man, the wise man says, because he loved stories. And maybe the other way around: Man invented God for the same reason. Or maybe Narrative invented both of us: couldn't do it without us. Hallelujah. Amen.
Lawrence Weschler, from Uncanny Valley: Adventures in Narrative.
The Uncanny Valley is a piece of metaphorical real estate, first suggested by Japanese roboticist Mashimiro Mori to mean the state of eeriness and discomfort generated by a robot (or computer simulation) when its face comes very, very close to being, but not quite perfectly, human. There is a threshold, Mori observed, past which something unsettling settles in, or perhaps our settled sense of what is human becomes unsettled. Here, Weschler, writing about attempts to generate lifelike computer actors for film, ponders a storytelling so evocative, so complete in its verisimilitude, that it vaults over this threshold and becomes some pure embodiment of human experience, the ultimate story.
Weschler has a discursive way about going about an essay, connecting his subject to sundry knowledge on the way. The "Cusan Divide" refers to 15th-century mystic Nicholas of Cusa, who imagined true knowledge of God as a circle. Put a polygon in the center and keep adding sides, one after another. You will eventually achieve a polygon very, very close to a circle, but you'll never achieve true circularity—or true knowledge of the absolute, at least not through deliberate thought.
There's a thought. Story creates itself by creating the storyteller. Which fits an idea expressed by some physicists that the purpose of life is to evolve beings—that'd be you and me—to bring the universe in existence by being here to witness it. The universe exists because of human observation and measurement. Did deep into quantum physics and it's not such a nutty idea. At least, you can see how the equations get you there.