The Rings of Saturn

On Monday Robert Macfarlane will be hosting a Twitter book club on W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, which is one of the most compelling and memorable books I have ever encountered. I’ve read it three times now and hope to read it at least twice more.

Years ago, in the first flush of my fascination with it, I bought a copy and sent it to Frederick Buechner, who, if you don’t know, is one the best writers of English now living. He read it, and wrote back to say, “I have no idea what any of that means but it is absolutely mesmerizing.” Which is a pretty good summary.

re-reading Trollope

I am re-reading the Palliser novels, for the first time in 20 years, which means I have largely forgotten what happens in them, and I am reminded that Trollope really is the most underrated novelist in the world. The casualness of his manner, and his intermittent insistence is that he is telling simple and insignificant stories, disguise from us just how penetrating his mind was, how clearly he sees the inmost workings of his characters’ lives, and how justly he deals out condemnation and mercy alike. I’m reading Can You Forgive Her? right now, and there is an extraordinary moment when George Vavasor has entered Parliament, having run a successful race thanks to the money he has extracted from his cousin Alice, whom he has manipulated into agreeing to marry him though he knows perfectly well that she does not love him. So when he comes to see her immediately after his election, he begins by thanking her for her financial contribution to his success – thanks which she does not want – but then strives to extract from her some expression of affection which she knows she does not feel. And Trollope pauses in the middle of George’s conversation with Alice and says, with brutal simplicity, “He should have been more of a rascal or less.” It’s one of the most devastating comments that any novelist has made about one of his characters.

George wants to be treated as an honorable man without being one. He wants Alice to give him credit for virtues and intentions which he has in a thousand ways made it clear that he does not possess. He insists upon being given credit for traits which as soon as he walks away from her he repudiates mockingly. He should have been more of a rascal or less. He should have frankly acknowledged the terms on which he and Alice have come to an agreement, or realized that he desperately needed to amend his life. But he does neither, and by doing neither makes himself and Alice equally miserable.

Can You Forgive Her? contains plenty of the broadish comedy that Trollope did so well – the protracted attempts of the farmer Mr Cheeseacre to woo the widow Greenow really are funny, even if there is more of it than one might think ideal – but the effect of these scenes is primarily to relieve the tension of what in other respects is a rather agonizing novel to read. Some may think “Ah, well, we know that everything will turn out all right in the end” – but we do not know that, not in a Trollope novel. Some of his most appealing and memorable characters (Lady Laura Kennedy, Lily Dale) do not receive the eucatastrophic resolution we would rightly expect from a lesser writer. If you know that, you know that you cannot simply expect a happy ending for his protagonists.

Which makes it all the more delightful when they get one.

where have the readers gone?

Jürgen Habermas:

The public sphere is crucial to the intellectual, though its fragile structure is undergoing an accelerated process of decay. The nostalgic question, ‘Where have all the intellectuals gone?’ misses the point. You can’t have committed intellectuals if you don’t have the readers to address the ideas to.

Those who once might have been readers are all shouting at one another on Twitter. One could argue that social media are not an extension of the public sphere but the antithesis of it. Habermas doesn’t want to rule out the possibility of things getting better: “Perhaps with time we will learn to manage the social networks in a civilized manner.” But he doesn’t seem especially hopeful: “I am too old to judge the cultural impulse that the new media is giving birth to. But it annoys me that it’s the first media revolution in the history of mankind to first and foremost serve economic as opposed to cultural ends.”

The really interesting point here is that you can’t have genuine public intellectuals if you don’t have a sizable class of people who are able to read — who can understand arguments and assess them shrewdly and fairly. But anyone has been on social media knows how rare such ability is, how regularly (almost unerringly) people respond to what others have written without having, in any meaningful sense, read it.

So maybe one of the most important questions we who are concerned about our common culture can ask ourselves is this: How do we bring reading back?

reading, annotating, quizzing, teaching

reading Charles Taylor

leaving the Oasis

I’m pretty sure my body has a peculiar electromagnetic field that wreaks havoc on the batteries of electronic devices. Not all of them: all of my iPhones have had more-or-less the advertised battery life. But all of my Mac laptops, going back fifteen years, have gotten around four hours from a charge. No announced improvement in battery power has ever changed that. (I’m typing this on a MacBook that’s supposed to get around 10 hours from a charge under normal use. It gets four. It has always gotten four.) And my Kindles have been even worse — though never quite as bad as my new Kindle Oasis, which promises “weeks” of battery life on a single charge and gets … about two days. And that’s with limited use of the light. Two days.

So I’m sending it back. It’s all boxed up and ready to go, which leaves me, if I want to read on an e-reader, with this old thing:

And you know, it’s not bad — not bad at all. Yes, it’s a little heavier and the type isn’t quite as sharp, but it has advantages: no touchscreen, so I don’t have to wipe off prints; a hardware keyboard, which is much more user-friendly for someone like me who actually annotates books; underlining of marked text, which I think more readable and less distracting than highlighting. It doesn’t have a light, of course, but I rarely use the light because I read outdoors a lot and even when reading inside it’s easier on my eyes to read by lamplight.

So maybe I’ll just keep using this device I bought seven years ago — as long as the battery holds out.

how to read biblical scholarship when you’re not a biblical scholar

I’ve spent many unedifying hours reading books by biblical scholars in ways that have not been … ideal for my purposes. Today I’m going to share with you all some important lessons I’ve learned through my suffering. 

1) The first part of the book will explain in mind-numbing detail how the author situates himself or herself in relation to several hundred other biblical critics. (Maybe only several dozen, but it will feel like several hundred.) The author will insist on explaining to you at, frankly, shocking length that there are

(a) scholars whose position he or she doesn’t agree with at all but whose work, in the cause of fairness, must be described thoroughly;

(b) scholars whose position he or she has partial sympathy with and whose work therefore must be described even more thoroughly; and

(c) scholars whose position he or she largely agrees with, though hopes to extend, and whose work must therefore be described until you are old and gray and full of sleep.

Skip all this. Seriously, don’t read any of it. If you’re not a member of the guild it will be neither interesting nor valuable. (All scholars interact with previous scholars in their chosen subject, but biblical scholars are in my experience unique in their devotion to “literature reviews” and “methodological introductions.” One gets the sense that they would write nothing but literature reviews and methodological introductions if they could get away with it.)

2) Next, read the last chapter, or conclusion. This is the place where you’ll find out what the author actually believes and get at least an outline of why he or she believes it. You should scrutinize the conclusion with great attentiveness, because almost all the good stuff is there.

3) As I say, the conclusion will give you at least an outline of why the author holds his or her views, but sometimes you won’t get as much detail as you need. No worries! The author will sometimes say things like “As I argued in Chapter 3” or “As noted above (pp. 173–79)” — so follow those bread crumbs and see the complete argument about whatever you’re interested in. And don’t bother with what you’re not interested in.

And that’s it! Three easy steps to getting great benefit from biblical scholarship at the least cost to your health and sanity.

There is only one way to read, which is to browse in libraries and bookshops, picking up books that attract you, reading only those, dropping them when they bore you, skipping the parts that drag — and never, never reading anything because you feel you ought, or because it is part of a trend or a movement. Remember that the book which bores you when you are twenty or thirty will open doors for you when you are forty or fifty — and vice-versa. Don’t read a book out of its right time for you.

Doris Lessing, 1971 introduction to The Golden Notebook (via austinkleon)

I had never seen this passage before, but it certainly chimes with a section of my book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction:

I was twenty years old before I failed to finish a book I had started: it was The Recognitions, a novel by William Gaddis, and I gave up, after an extended period of moral paralysis, at page 666. That day I grieved, feeling that I had been forced from some noble pedestal; but I woke up the next morning with my soul singing. After all, though I would never get back the hours I had devoted to those 666 pages, the hours I would have spent ploughing through the remaining 400 were mine to spend as I would. I had been granted time as a pure and sweet gift.

Of course, once you have abandoned a book after more than six hundred pages, abandoning one after fifty seems trivial. But for me that wasn’t a bad thing. I needed to overcome the sense of duty that had marched me through so many books before the ultimately liberating, if at the time miserable, experience of The Recognitions; and I needed to learn, as I eventually did, that if I set a book aside today I am not thereby forbidding myself to return to it later — nor am I promising to do so. To everything there is a season, and, by corollary, everything is sometimes out of season. Perhaps there will even come a time for me to read The Recognitions. But no one will be able to tell me when that season comes; I will have to discern that for myself, with the aid of many years of reflecting on the kind of reader I am.

readers reborn

If the reading of adults is as inefficient as Professor Adler asserts – and I agree with him – it is because most of them are reading only in order to escape from their own thoughts or to be socially respectable. If they are to improve, the first thing to say to them is not — “You don’t read enough,” or “You read bad books,” but — “You read far too much. You haven’t the slightest idea what kind of a person you are or what you want to know, and it is no use your trying to read at all until you have, and are compelled to admit to the truth you discover is most disagreeable. To read the Iliad because Professor Adler tells you it is good is no better than reading the Saturday Evening Post because your neighbor reads it. No one can tell you how to become a civilized person. There is no ready-made answer because, to become civilized, you will have to be reborn.”

— W. H. Auden, review of Mortimer Adler’s How To Read a Book (1941)

The invention of ‘printing,’ though ingenious compared with the invention of ‘letters,’ is no great matter.

Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, Chapter IV: Of Speech. Those who are inclined to fetishize that wonderful invention, the codex, should remember this.

Another Note About Reading

In response to my posting of some rather directive thoughts on reading by Dorothy Sayers, a friend wrote: “Hey, I thought you were the ‘read at whim’ guy.” To which I respond, first, I am the “read at whim” guy. In that book I wrote, and I still believe,

For heaven’s sake, don’t turn reading into the intellectual equivalent of eating organic greens, or (shifting the metaphor slightly) some fearfully disciplined appointment with an elliptical trainer of the mind in which you count words or pages the way some people fix their attention on the “calories burned” readout — some assiduous and taxing exercise that allows you to look back on your conquest of Middlemarch with grim satisfaction. How depressing. This kind of thing is not reading at all, but what C. S. Lewis once called “social and ethical hygiene.”

But what I was writing about there was recreational reading. I don’t tell students in my classes to read at whim; I don’t encourage people studying for an organic chemistry final exam or the LSAT to read at whim. And it seems to me that people don’t always keep the varying occasions of reading clearly distinguished in their minds when they talk about what others should or should not read — nor when they make their own decisions about reading.

When reading for fun, then, I’d recommend, read for fun. When reading in order to learn about something specific, for a definable purpose, then read, in a disciplined and attentive way, what helps you to achieve that purpose. This much seems clear to me. But I think what often happens to people is that they catch themselves in a vaguely intermediate condition, not really needing to read anything in particular but vaguely feeling that their reading somehow ought to be purposeful — even teleological in a way, leading towards some genuinely meaningful end.

What many of these people really want, it seems to me — and I base this on decades of talking with folks who are anxious about their reading — is not to read Henry James but to be the kind of person who, when left at loose ends, positively wants to read Henry James, wants to read Henry James so much that he or she will toss aside Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and Fifty Shades of Grey without even noticing what they are in order to get to that precious copy of The Ambassadors that someone has inexplicably left at the bottom of a stack.

I think it’s okay not to be that person. I have read most of Henry James’s novels and I think he is a true master — though still more a master of the short story — but I am definitely not that person.

If you want to make a serious study of the novels of Henry James in order to develop a fuller understanding of his mastery, then do that. It’s a good thing to do. Develop a plan, develop a strategy for learning more about anything that you’d like to know more about. Self-education is a fantastic thing. But it’s not the same thing as reading for fun, for delight, at whim. And giving free rein to Whim from time to time is also a very healthy — I would say a necessary — thing to do.

Assignment: Commentary and Anthology

Just in case anyone is interested, here’s a draft of something I’ll be handing out to my students in a couple of weeks.

In most of your courses in the humanities, you’re asked to write papers — probably thesis papers, in which you make an argument that you support with evidence from the text under consideration and from critical or contextual studies. It’s a reasonable task to ask students to perform; Lord knows I have asked it of enough students in my thirty-plus years of teaching. But it’s not the only appropriate assignment, and it has certain shortcomings.

Chief among those, I think, is its tendency to encourage people to get through the task of reading as quickly as possible in order to get on to the really important job of articulating and defending your own position. But reading is a task that deserves more care — especially when the texts involved are challenging, difficult, and major.

In a brilliant and important book, Religious Reading, Paul Griffiths demonstrates that in most of the great religious traditions — Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Christianity — there are genres of reading, that is, kinds of texts in which one records one’s reading. The two major genres, according to Griffiths, are commentary and anthology. To people trained in the habits of mind associated with the thesis paper, these genres seem passive and deferential — especially when applied to non-religious texts. But those genres are not passive at all, and insofar as they are deferential that deference may be quite appropriate. After all, many non-religious texts, especially when they arise in cultures distant from us in time or space or both, pose great difficulties for the reader. Allusions will escape us, social and cultural contexts will be unknown to us, subtleties of argument or exposition or characterization or poetic language will leave us scratching our heads. To seek to identify and then resolve those difficulties — these are highly demanding intellectual tasks, and will not allow passivity, though, as they reveal the complexities that animate really significant works, they may promote deference.

In our class, we will be using a wonderful tool called CommentPress to create an online anthology of writings and to comment on those writings. You will not write papers in this class; instead, you will help to create the anthology, and you will comment on texts you bring to our attention and on the texts others bring. By the end of the term, we will have created a body of annotated readings that, taken as a whole, will significantly illuminate our subject.

So each week, you will do each of the following:

  • Post one passage from one of our assigned texts (either copying and pasting from an online public-domain text, or typing in a passage from one of your books);
  • Make a comment that offers some helpful contextual information about the passage (something about the text’s author, or the historical moment of its composition, or the culture within which it was produced, or a work that it echoes or responds to), preferably with a link to your source;
  • Make a longer comment (perhaps 150-250 words or so) that offers an interpretation of a particular passage in the text, probably drawing on existing scholarly work;
  • Respond to someone else’s comment by disagreeing with it, amplifying and extending it, or providing further relevant information.

You should be aware right from the beginning that this assignment will require you to form somewhat different work habits than you are used to. Many of you are habituated to an academic model in which you read regularly but write infrequently, and probably in intense bursts of activity. In this class reading and writing will be more closely joined to one another, and you will write almost as regularly as you read, and in smaller chunks than essay assignments normally require.

You will also need to familiarize yourself with the CommentPress software, including the proper ways to format text and insert links. Don’t worry: I’ll show you in class how it’s done, and will be happy to answer questions later.

So this will be different than you’re used to. But different is good. Or at least, it can be!

A new journalistic recipe is afoot: find once ubiquitous technology that is on the wane and write about its quirky history. The latest exhibit at the LA Review of Books: the phone booth.

Ah, the phone booth, haven of bacterial infestation, coin-operated dysfunctionality, and cinematic obsession. We’ll miss you.

Of course the more interesting question is not to treat media like cats (so cute, so sad), but to ask why it is that we need to rehearse these disappearances. Why are we so drawn to the mourning work of missing media?

Andrew Piper, who has written elsewhere about the comfort people take in “eulogizing media technology, like a warm blanket for the overconnected.”

We have gone long enough without raising the question of whether reading makes you a better person. The short answer to that question is No. It doesn’t. And the long answer doesn’t differ too dramatically from the short one….

Responding to the claim that not just reading but “high culture” in general is morally improving, Terry Eagleton points out that, during World War II, “many people were indeed deep in high culture, but … this had not prevented some of them from engaging in such activities as superintending the murder of Jews in central Europe.” If reading really was supposed to “make you a better person,” then “when the Allied troops moved into the concentration camps … to arrest commandants who had whiled away their leisure hours with a volume of Goethe, it appeared that someone had some explaining to do.”

There’s simply nothing about reading, or listening to Mozart sonatas, or viewing paintings by Raphael, that necessarily transforms or even improves someone’s character. As the eighteenth-century scientist G. C. Lichtenberg once wrote, “A book is like a mirror: if an ass looks in, you can’t expect an apostle to look out.” Nevertheless, I am going to argue, from time to time throughout the course of this book, that if you really want to become a better person, there are ways in which reading can help. But the degree to which that happens will depend not just on what you read … but also why and how. So consider yourself either warned or promised, according to your feelings about moralistic exhortation.

“poisoning your mind with novels”

People talk of keeping au courant, and no doubt an intellectual cannot ignore the human race, nor be indifferent to what is written in his special field; but take care lest the current should carry away with it all your capacity for work, and, instead of bearing you onwards, prevent you from making any headway against it….

What you must principally cut down is the less solid and serious kind of reading. There must be no question at all of poisoning your mind with novels. One from time to time, if you like, as a recreation and not to neglect some literary glory, but that is a concession; for the greater number of novels upset the mind without refreshing it; they disturb and confuse one’s thoughts.

As to newspapers, defend yourself against them with the energy that the continuity and the indiscretion of their assault make indispensable. You must know what the papers contain, but they contain so little; and it would be easy to learn it all without settling down to interminable lazy sittings!…

A serious worker should be content, one would think, with the weekly or bi-monthly chronicle in a review; and for the rest, with keeping his ears open, and turning to the daily papers only when a remarkable article or a grave event is brought to his notice.

— A. G. Sertillanges, O.P., from The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods (first published in 1921)

What if you answered the question “What do you do all day?” with “Nothing”? It isn’t as if that could possibly be true. If you spent all day in bed watching television, or staring at the clouds, you wouldn’t be doing nothing. Children are always being told to stop doing “nothing” when they’re reading or daydreaming. It is lifelong training for the idea that activity is considered essential to mental health, whether it is meaningful or not. Behind the “nothing” is in part a terror of boredom, as if most of the work most people do for most of their lives isn’t boring. The longing people express to be doing “creative” work suggests that they think it less boring than other kinds of work. Many people say that writing isn’t “proper work”. Often they tell me they are saving up writing a book for their “retirement”. Creative work sits uneasily in the fantasy life between dread leisure and the slog of the virtuous, hardworking life. It’s seen as a method of doing something while doing nothing, one that stops you flying away in terror.

I just wish that we could talk about books as if they are for use, not as symbols of enduring knowledge that must be preserved against the ravages of digital barbarians or as emblems of obdurate and blinkered resistance to inevitable change.

I am in thoroughgoing disagreement with all of this. I find Gatsby aesthetically overrated, psychologically vacant, and morally complacent; I think we kid ourselves about the lessons it contains. None of this would matter much to me if Gatsby were not also sacrosanct. Books being borderline irrelevant in America, one is generally free to dislike them—but not this book. So since we find ourselves, as we cyclically do here, in the middle of another massive Gatsby ­recrudescence, allow me to file a minority report.

— Kathryn Schulz. And yet, despite not being free to dislike the book, you somehow manage to do so. How are we to account for this?

fiction recomplicates itself

To reformulate reading at thirteen, you jump to adult books. One entrypoint is via the classics. Amid the baffling profusion of grown-up possibilities, a reassuring sense of order adheres to the novels from the past that have already been sifted through and declared good, and conveniently assembled together, as a row of orange Penguins in a bookshop, or a dump of old Everymans discovered in a cardboard box. The country is dotted with dormant shelves-full of standard editions, put together by a previous generation, and waiting for a bored thirteen-year-old to blow the dust off. Go this way, and your next move when Narnia ceases to satisfy is to Jane Eyre. Fiction recomplicates itself for you: you step up a whole level of complexity. Suddenly you are surrounded anew by difficulties and riches commensurate with your state of mind. From an exhausted territory, you have come to an unexplored one, where manners and intentions are all to find, just like the rules of your own new existence in your own new lurch-prone adolescent body; and here the emotions are urgent again, because the great canonical novels of courtship – Jane Austen is next – all deal with people circling warily, interestedly, as they try to figure each other out, and decide from cues of behaviour like the ones real other people present to you yourself, whether this person or that is the one with whom desire and affection and trust can come together.

— Francis Spufford, The Child that Books Built

Continue reading

I break tablet reading distances into three main categories—Bed, Knee, and Breakfast—and define the categories by generic use case:

• Bed (Close to face): Reading a novel on your stomach, lying in bed with the iPad propped up on a pillow.

• Knee (Medium distance from face): Sitting on the couch or perhaps the Eurostar on your way to Paris, the iPad on your knee, catching up on Instapaper.

• Breakfast (Far from face): The iPad, propped up by the Apple case at a comfortable angle, behind your breakfast coffee and bagel, allowing for handsfree news reading as you wipe cream cheese from the corner of your mouth.

So: distances near, medium, and far.

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