Overweening Generalist

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Book Kulchur: A Few Word-Blobs

John Keats, writing - using a sort of "pen" and ink medium on a form of "paper" which was called a "letter," in 1819 - to his betrothed, Fanny Brawne:

"Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors, played by somebody I do not know."

Romantic? I think so. But I need to turn off the music in order to fully read a book; I find music too attention-grabbing, and I fancy myself an anti-multitasker. Perhaps Keats wanted all those things serially, against the backdrop of fine weather. I find I wonder about the musician he doesn't know.

At any rate, on with books!

A Few Odd Items, First Up: North Korea
"Imagine a world in which no one has written a literary novel in sixty years," writes Adam Johnson, the author of The Orphan Master's Son, set in North Korea, a country he visited in 2007, and which he writes about HERE. North Korea really has zero, zilch, nada for book culture. What an astounding monstrosity! The stories I've read about North Korea, both before Lil' Kim's demise and after, make even this peacenik think martial thoughts having to do with freeing those robotic humans. The entire idea of totalitarianism that..."total" almost leaves me speechless. No books, no expression of personal thought, no creativity, no...personalities. All because some little dipshit's family line got away with the Control Game long enough to, effectively set up an alternative "reality" in each citizen's mind. Every time I contemplate North Korea, I find myself mired in a mixture of fear, strong loathing, and sadness. The very idea that the corporate news media and political parties have been hard at work equating North Korea with Iran! Iran is a youthful country that loves Western ideas, is quite literate, and they're kept down by ayatollahs and a military authority. But their people are worldly, and I am duly nervous that their leaders are going to force some military showdown over Israel. Or maybe Israel will start it. Hey! I was supposed to talk about books, but I went off about who got to read and write books, and loudmouth worthless authoritarian monsters in North Korean and Iran. Sorry!

But let me get this in before I move on: Christopher Hitchens's article, "A Nation of Racist Dwarfs." RIP, Hitch.

451 Fahrenheit Familiar
Need more proof in a lack of God? Compare and consider North Korea's poverty and booklessness with this incredibly depressing story by S. Peter Davis. It's absurd, painful, ironic, and devastates a dead-tree bibliomane like myself. But damn! I envy Davis's mordant humor. The story is about 6 Reasons We're In Another Book-Burning Period in History and it's explained well, and I can't believe it, but it's hilarious. Darkly so. Davis also writes a wonderful blog/website, Three Minute Philosophy, and if you hadn't read it - or watched it, rather - before, you can thank me later.

Yep: tens of thousands of often old, irreplaceable books are being surreptitiously yanked from the shelves - mostly from university libraries, as I gather from the context of the article - and warehoused, then burnt. And Davis tells us all the good reasons why. If you're in a hurry, at least look at the pics and the captions. This piece reads like gonzo investigative journalism by a writer-comedian reporting from the sewage treatment plant, where you didn't know things had been going wrong for a long time, but they have...and writing it in a sort of True Confessions tone. The title of the article could've been, "I Burn Books For A Living Because Somebody Has To." Oy!

The #1 reason - E-books - is something I'll write about in the future. (Spoiler alert: I hate the goddamned things.) But anyone who's had to do a rotten job has to feel at least some sympathy with others in similar circumstances. When Davis writes:

"When your entire local library can be replaced by a USB drive the size of your fingernail, the only thing keeping those books out of an industrial-sized furnace is people who have some innate fondness for books. And there isn't much room in this economy for innate fondness." ...you have to sorta shut up and take it. I have the innate fondness. It's a good bet you do, too. But after reading his other five reasons...Having worked in public libraries, I was aware of the counterintuitive reasons why burning books is cheaper than giving them away, and have tried to explain to a few people, always to meet with incredulity and outrage.

Turning towards the more local world, in an article in The Guardian from this past October, Ian Sample tackles the thorny problem of the safety of reading while "going to the loo," to put it Brit-delicately. Reading while taking a crap, to put it bluntly. It turns out to be pretty safe, as long as you wash your hands afterwards. Sample can't help but pun as much as he can about feces and us, even in an article ostensibly about health, and I can't say I wouldn't have treated the matter the same way were I being paid to write the piece.

Reading material in the bathroom, that multiple people might pick up and read? If it's absorbent paper, probably no worries. If it's a glossy magazine cover, make sure you wash well. If you're one of those abhorrent people who use your Kindle, iPhone or iPad while snapping one off, that bacteria can stay on there longer than you think. Serves you right. Oh, and plastic book covers probably need a bit of Purell every now and then, too.

Val Curtis is mentioned in the article. Curtis is writing a book on disgust, and says that we've evolved our disgust to avoid infectious risk, especially of other people's...bodily wastes. Which reminded me of my friend Mark Williams, an English teacher in Wilmington, California. We were sitting around one night drinking wine and he suddenly observed that if you use "throw-up" as a verb, it's not disgusting: "I think I'm going to throw-up." But, oddly, if you use it as a noun, "Look at that throw-up over there near the windowsill," it's pretty disgusting.

Mr. Williams is in charge of educating our high school students.

Men of the Stacks
A bunch of male librarians got together and did a beefcake calendar, with the proceeds going to support anti-bullying campaigns and the "It Gets Better" movement and in general, LGBT causes.
Two articles on it HERE and HERE.
                                 Mr. January, Zack. The male librarians wanted to combat a
                                 prevalent stereotype about themselves. I include this pic here
                                 partially to make up for the pic of Winona Ryder, recently.

On the Minority of Long-Form Readers
It appears that the percentage of the population who make a lifetime of long-form reading, for pleasure, with several hours devoted to a "deep attention" to a single text, has always been small. In THIS excerpt from Wheaton College English Professor Alan Jacobs's book, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, I learned that there was a brief blip of a relatively large percentage of the population in Unistat who were practicing deep attention long-form reading, from roughly 1945 to 2000 (the first G.I. Bill users and their children making up a lot of this), but now the reading practice has returned to what it probably always was: a well-practiced skimming for information. Prof. Jacobs mentions three sociologists from Northwestern and their study on long-form reading: it seems people who like to read long, weighty, dense books of literature are born and/or born and a bit made. It seems an inevitable small minority. There are people who will do long-form reading but not enjoy it much, and even they seem a minority. It seems likely that, during the statistical blip of Cold War Unistat higher education, a lot of students were doing forced deep attention, and that probably was not enjoyable.

There's a quote from Steven Pinker in the article that made sense to me: "Children are wired for sound, but print is an optional accessory that must be bolted on." And the bolting is difficult, and many don't like being bolted. Even most of the ones who appreciate the attempt at the bolting don't entirely take to long-form reading. It seems there has always been a "reading class," and it's found in all social strata, from rich to poor, from the academically attained to dropouts.

At the beginning of the 20th century, about two percent of the population went to college; it's now 70%, and kinda disastrous, for many reasons. I go into some of it HERE. Professor Jacobs seems to have made his peace with the 21st century reading culture that needs to, as one M.I.T. grad student put it, "skim well."

Jacobs makes the point that the non -"reading class" folk can be brilliant and very intelligent. Of course! We simply can't seem to force students into loving long-form reading. Perhaps it's a spandrel or a culturally-acceptable form of a-social behavior...

The sections from the excerpt about information overload versus "filter failure," the contrasting modes of "deep attention" and "hyper attention," and the quotes and anecdotes from the 17th century French scholar, Erasmus, Augustine, and Sir Francis Bacon were interesting to me. But what really got me going was the brief discussion of a book I have not read, Jonathan Rose's The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, mainly because it sounds so similar to Lawrence Levine's Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America, which really knocked me out when I read it in the late 1990s. The idea that the workers took their autodidacticism very seriously and read the classics closely, for knowledge was power...these people are close to my heart. Levine writes about the construction of High Culture and the appropriation of Shakespeare and Bach by the wealthy elites. Apparently something similar happened in England, and around the same time it happened in Unistat.

Jacobs relates Roses' findings and mentions that the working-class autodidacts were more dynamic and passionate about reading classics before the general curriculum change of teaching English Lit with the Education Act of 1870. You can hear someone echoing down the halls of history, "But we were only trying to help!" If you read Jacobs's article or Rose's book you ought to note well the distrust among the working class readers and writers found in this line from Rose, quoted by Jacobs: "The only true education is self-education, and they often regarded the expansion of formal educational opportunities with suspicion."

Finally, I am forced to acknowledge that, near the end of the excerpt, Professor Jacobs tells how he was becoming increasingly distracted from deep-attention long-form reading for pleasure until his Kindle rekindled it for him.


Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

Not to be pedantic about it, but Fanny Brawne was not Keats' wife. The reality is much sadder than that -- Keats died before he could marry her, much less sleep with her a couple of times. I wish he had gotten the chance to marry her.

Is this a bad time to tell you how much I enjoy the Kindle Touch I got for Christmas? It't not look I'm getting rid of all of my "dead tree" books.

michael said...

Fixed the Fanny fact, thanks. An old Oxford Dictionary of Quotations was consulted for quotes on books, and I chose that one, and it's cited as a letter to Fanny Keats. TB did Keats in before he could marry.

But I noticed Keats had a younger sister named Fanny, so maybe the letter was to her?

I think you mentioned at RAWIllumination that you loved your new Kindle, which I will not hold against you.

Psuke said...

I love my dead tree books with a deep and abiding passion and old books with a very special love that is theirs alone...but I confess the Kindle does ahve an advantage: it's alot easier to carry even a "weighty" tome during the commute, and as someone who lugged around a five pound book during her commute I will tell you that is nothing to be sneezed at.

And if we could make it so the trees died only for the "worthy" books and not the "potboiler trash" I'd say that was a win, too...but my overly democratic nature baulks at anyone having the power to make that call.

OTOH, if giving up my Kindle tomorrow meant the physical libraries would be saved? I'd axe that sucker in a heartbeat, you betcha.

michael said...

Most of my relatively saner friends seem to hold your POV on this: they love dead tree books, but the Kindles and other e-readers have their advantages.

Some high quality writers assert they needed to write potboilers "strictly from hunger" or just to refine their ability to novel write. Would/wood we begrudge them their due pulp?

But I get what I think you mean: all those trees dead in order to market stuff writers who never really cared at all about style, melopoeia, phanopoeia, and think whatever logopoeia they're got is bringin' it there.

Aye but this idea has not been refuted, as far as I know: legalize HEMP and you get a quality of paper that doesn't break down for hundreds of years. And it's a cheap, renewable resource! Have you ever picked up a science fiction paperback printed in the early 1960s? The pages are yellow and brittle on the edges and the paper - pulp extended by adding an acid to the mash - has taken on a slight fuzzy texture. Then: you bend a corner and IT BREAKS off!


HEMP! Gimme books made from hemp!

And your weighty tomes on Kindle during commutes? Don't you want others to see you're actually reading War and Peace? How can you - as the kidz say - "represent"? (Just kidding)

Thanks for livening up the OG w/your wit, Psuke.