Overweening Generalist

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Books and Reading and My Paranoia, My...Testicularia

I read a lot. One of the ideas I've read a lot about lately is how books and reading are going away, falling away towards some whirling cultural drain circle, and it's only a matter of time before all that was great and holy (and secular!) and good and free-speechy and democratic would leave the world stage. Everything about sustained leisurely concentration on significant texts and how books and reading elevate us and allow us our humanity: it will all soon be gone, say the (some but not all) intellectuals and the book-lovers. Because of the Internet, mostly. That's what's killing an entire world off.

I read most of the stuff about this bookpocalypse (or the more proper: biblioclasm? libricide?) on Internet.

                                        a shot of the Paris bookshop once owned by
                                        Sylvia Beach, who first printed Ulysses

Yee gawds there's a lot of this stuff - very well-written pieces, usually, by highly literate, thoughtful, even at times erudite writers - on Internet. The topic: how the Internet is killing what they love.

Somehow I doubt the advent of the telephone had similar effects on highly literate paranoids. A PhD in Comparative Lit calls his friends and all he can talk about is how this telephone thing is ruining us! No one's gonna care about talking face-to-face anymore! I haven't done the research, but somehow I doubt this occurred.

(To be fair, e-books, video games, cell phones, TV, virtual reality, androids, iSomethings and horrifying things like Second Life we've read about in books...any sort of media not the codex-book, really: are also partly to blame. I have even read a large handful - at minimum, ten - of articles about how colleges and universities have drastically dumbed-down their reading requirements.)

It's as if these dead-tree codex-book readers are addicts, and The Man is slowly persecuting them, and the tide of Mass Perception is slowly turning against them: they are intent on getting rid of our drugs! Hey, we admit we're hooked, but we're happy! Our drugs are like Smart Pills! Yours? Not so much. The Man wants us to use their drugs! And don't they know how special our drugs are...were? You all are making a big mistake! Don't call up what you can't put down! (Anyone got a spare Xanax?)

I admit I'm one of these types (And yes: I'm writing this on a blog, fer crissakes!: Their drugs are powerful, I admit), and I also admit to caricaturing them/me here. But only for effect, yassee. Make no mistake about it though: we're paranoid, tinged with anger, peppered with pomposity, strung out on libraries...and maybe the structure of non-book knowledge to come is too weird and beastly and unheimlich...let's avert our eyes. No! Don't give up!

Taking My Testicularia* Down A Notch
In order to allay my fears, I have gone in search of dissentual data. I'm getting my things in order and not trying to make peace with a damned demiurge who'd allow this to happen. (Deep breaths!)

*Testicularia is a word coined by Dr. Leonard Shlain: if we have Hysteria, to describe wild, unhinged emotions, and we use a term derived from female anatomy, Shlain thought a word for men who are unhinged ought to exist, and also be derived from a roughly equal anatomical part. Voila!: Testicularia, this time my own. Oh, well...(NB: mushroom hunters/mycologists already have their testicularia; they've had it for a long time. Apparently it's a rare one. This is one case where a word already existed, but it was a specialist's word, and Shlain's idea seems to have sprung isolated from knowledge of the rare fungus. And there's my requisite nutball  digression!)

But not all the news from my olde timey perspective is bad, viz:

                                                  Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The Facebook Gen Uses Libraries: A Lot?
According to a recent PEW poll as reported on NPR, 8 of 10 Unistatians aged 16-29 read a book in the past year, compared to only 7 of 10 of the other adults. This was supposed to be good news? Oh wait, there's more: the young ones liked the library. (Hey, that's grand!) Some better news: they say that e-books fit their lives, but they don't want print books to go away, as they're part of the general landscape, or something. Hold on, I just read the article again more closely, and it doesn't seem as sunny as the headline suggests. Not to me it don't. What constituted that one book in the year? And this is self-reported, right? Jeez, if you were called by a polling group and you'd actually done nothing but smoke weed and play Black Sabbath covers in your mom's basement all year, wouldn't you at least have the smarts enough to fib and say you'd read...I dunno...five books that year?

Okay, if they really are reading one book a year...don't tell me: it's Harry Potter and the Secret of the Goblin of Doom, right? Something like that. Oh and maybe: a graphic novel? Even a fuddy-duddy like myself has enjoyed some of those. I'd like to think a small percentage took that whole year to luxuriate in Ulysses or Dante, or Lucretius, or Darwin. But I seriously doubt it. This article strongly suggests post-literacy tribalism. And what does PEW consider "long form" in their study? Anyway...

Of Five Million books in the NYPL, only 300,000 were requested last year.

Testicularia rising...

One For Our Side: Finnegans Wake Finished!
"On Completing Finnegans Wake" by a brilliant young person who goes by "PQ", based in Austin, TX. There's still hope? Dig the devotion to actually reading. And the most informationally-dense work in English literature, or whatever that language is. I've always called in Wick-Lang.

As Jeremy Campbell wrote in Grammatical Man, in discussing Claude Shannon's method of mathematically quantifying information in a text, or any series of signals, "In James Joyce, almost every word comes as a surprise because there is no familiar context preceding it. In Finnegans Wake, the reader must supply context from his own knowledge or his knowledge of Joyce commentators to make sense of the sentences as they appear on the page. Some of this context will be composed of mental concepts." (248) The scholar-artist of the avant garde, Richard Kostelanetz, writes in his A Dictionary of the Avant-Gardes (2nd ed.) that, in FW, the interpretation of human experience is "hardly 'original' or 'profound,' but thanks to the technique of multiple reference, incorporating innumerable examples into every part of the text, the theme is extended into a broad range of experience. No other literary work rivals the Wake in allusive density; in no other piece of writing known to me are so many dimensions simultaneously articulated." Kostelanetz thinks that the reader's acceptance or rejection of FW is a "fairly reliable symbolic test of his or her sympathy toward subsequent avant-garde writing." (212)

I've found this true myself. And I thoroughly enjoyed reading PQ's reportage about what secondary sources he used, how wonderfully weird and prescient and otherworldly Joyce's mind seems in certain passages, and just basically PQ's periplum* with the Wake.

*periplum: like phenomenological vision. It traces back to something like Greek voyages around a coast-line, but as Ezra Pound scholar William Cookson wrote - as Pound resurrected the word, largely - Pound used it as something like "voyages of the mind." In Pound's Canto 82, he writes a vision of:

                              three solemn half-notes
                                                        their white downy chests black-rimmed
                              on the middle wire

Q: What vital info was removed by Pound in order to cause an explosion of associative connections within you?

A: Whatever you thought it was. But if you "saw" the birds as half-notes, as Pound saw them on the middle wire, whatever Pound decided to leave out to make the lines more highly charged, this removed info is the exformation.

Ah, but I was supposed to discuss my paranoid decline of reading. On with it!

A Plug For Marshall Poe
Here's a guy who takes Marshall McLuhan by one hand, and pulls him through to the other side. A cultural elite who addresses the problem of "Death To The Reading Class," and what to do about it. Poe addresses those of us who read books and think book-reading is "intrinsically better" than any other media. And we think other people should be like us. But they can't. They don't like reading and they never have. Poe has adults reading for 15 minutes a day here, but not enjoying it. And he discusses the history of the elite classes trying to get everyone else strung out on their/our drug, books. But it's never worked, and he thinks it's because our eyes and brains "were made for watching, not decoding tiny symbols on mulch sheets."

This reminded me of a study I wrote about back here (skip down to "On the Minority of Long-Form Readers"): only a tiny class - and they are probably not only cultural elites (I'm certainly not one!) - genuinely enjoy reading long, fat, dense books. It's us who are the weird ones! My mother said she started me on phonics around three or four and I just started reading and never stopped...

Anyway, Poe says we book readers have gotten it wrong: it's not the reading that the masses are missing out on, it's the knowledge in the books. "Books imprison ideas; the 'new books' podcasts set them free."

And so he's developed three ways smart people who don't like to sit and decode abstract symbols on paper can access new ideas. Two use a podcast method, and one uses a video method. If the title of the article I linked to by Poe is "Death To The Reading Class," then he adds, "Long live the Multimedia Class!"

New Books In History podcast
New Books Network podcast
Mechanical Icon: video essays on famous photographs, highly influenced by Montaigne

Am I shooting myself in the foot here? I'm not sure.


Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

Michael, I stand with you as a long, fat, dense books weirdo! Loved this post.

A couple of things:

(1) To read this new blog post in the proper, respectful way, do you ask us to make a printout of it and read it on paper?

(2) If I have James Joyce and Lucretius on my Kindle, does that make you feel better or worse?

By the way, POE is the name of the bad guys in "The Universe Next Door," which I'm currently re-reading. I know this because I, um, read books ......

michael said...

Thanks Tom.

As to (1): No, don't print it, for this would seem redundant, and besides you've already cosmically contributed to the demise of books by logging onto this blog and reading it. Note well, meine freund: I'm even more culpable. You only kill the ones you love?

[Re: batshit Alex Jones: testicularia on another level, and I hope he increases sales of CT1, lending credence to RAW's Darwinian-Zen idea that STUPIDITY has a very strong evolutionary function.]

As per (2) I feel both better and worse, for I am large, I contain multitudes.

Once you're in this as far as you are, it's inextricable, for I must warn you. And aye, verily, the inventor of the modern detective - latter day private dicks will show up in those other worlds you're immersed in now - they appear indebted to yet another POE.

The intertwingling at this level is endless, and inevitable.

I confer exemption for all misdeeds in this Realm through 2013, hereby. Lincense fees, dealer prep and option, undercoating and the party of the first part will be considered one year hence, as of this day. Now be OFF!

PQ said...

What a huge honor to be prominently mentioned here in this great post. Really, thanks very much for the kind words! and for sharing my stuff with your (no doubt highly literate) readers. I'll have a blog of strictly Finnegans Wake "periplum" up and running very soon.

As someone who keeps lists of the next dozen or so books I need to read and who is constantly reading at least 3 books on different subjects interchangeably, I must share my slightly unusual outlook on the matters covered here.

Right now I've got two books in front of me, both of which I'm reading and enjoying both for the quality of the writing and, more importantly, the knowledge shared. (The books are John Bishop's Finnegans Wake study "Joyce's Book of the Dark" and a book called "Water, Pure and Simple: The infinite wisdom of an extraordinary molecule" by Paolo Consigli.)

Only I must come clean: I sort of wish I could just download all of the books' information into my brain. I LOVE reading, obviously, but with the majority of books I really wish I could just cut the hassle and somehow inhale the books into my brain and then have that knowledge/data available for access. I have a pathetically nerdy fear that I won't live long enough to read all the books I want to.

Having said that, it's true that with books like Ulysses, Finnegans Wake, and even RAW's books it's a unique pleasure to go through them, soak in each part, soak in the language, and have no concern for completing them. Very much like listening to music. As Alan Watts used to say, there's no hurry to finish music and get to some endpoint.

All of which is to say, I love paper books and they essentially dominate my life, but if this electronic evolution reaches the point of being able to skip the hours of eyeing miles and miles of text lines to just eat the damn info into your mind, I won't be upset.

Eric Wagner said...

Great post. My high school will require all students to own an iPad next year, and we will use no textbooks, only iBooks and eBooks.

I met Laurence Ferlighetti in Shakespeare and Company in the summer of 1985.

michael said...

@PQ: I hope more people who read the OG get turned on to A Building Roam.

I think your style could attract a lot of people to a FW blog.

Rorty says in a footnote in one of his books that no one wants a complete set of footnotes to FW (and he mentioned three or four other texts, like Tristam Shandy), but that they wanted to make their own footnotes to books like that.

Meanwhile, do you come across passages in FW in which Joyce or the Uber-Narrator, or some other level of HCE's dreaming mind: suddenly, there's a "footnote" in the text - "can you reade my claybook?"

To me, there are passages that FEEL as if they were footnotes...and I make notes about those!

The committed autodidact/generalist intellectual-artist has very many ways in which to approach a project. To me, one that will never degenerate is to read FW, use secondary sources like mad, and then feel free to go off reading in some tributary that the Wake takes you: Irish history, Livy, Vico, the history of forgeries, etc, etc, etc.

I remember reading an interview with William Gibson, and he foresaw microchip brain implants that would allow you to instantly know a foreign language, which at the time he thought was a cool thing. (Does he still feel that way?) Anyway, I think the contents of a book are one thing, but your reading is another, and I like the multiplicity of readers and the idea that each reading is unique, but maybe not when we're talking about much more informationally abstracted ideas, such as "D. Hofstadter says this about recursion, while Chomsky doesn't really address that issue of recursion much at all, but has this and that to say about it with regard to his formal syntactic ideas about Universal Grammar...No, the Second Amendment really only says this..." (Or do we already have that, with the e-books?)

@Prof Wagner: I said hello to Ferlinghetti at City Lights a few years ago, but that somehow seems less impressive.

PQ said...

FW is littered with those sort of "footnotes" you describe. Flipping open at random, I find "don't start furlan your ladins till you've learned the lie of her landguage!" on p. 327.

And of course the Night Lessons chapter features actual footnotes, one of which reads "Wipe your glosses with what you know" (p304) which sums up the point you're making.

I've been planning a book of such personal "footnotes" or interpretations for the chapters of Ulysses for a little while now. This is actually why I decided to read the Wake whose own knotted clusters of meaning are endlessly extractable.

I'm hoping to provide something that's missing with the Wake blog, a regularly updated FW content farm featuring such unravelings and endless "tributaries" as you call them. Feels perfectly suited to a blog format.

michael said...

I agree that the blog format seems perfect for your project. For one thing, it can suggest a way in to the readings of books that a great many intelligent non-academics have blocked out as too daunting, and the wholly owned subsidiary of overly jargony Academia.

And anyway, isn't Wake about both Everything and Itself? And so...The Reader's multilayered consciousness?

I like "knotted clusters of meaning are endlessly extractable;" it reminds me of vortices of potential free energy and Bucky Fuller.

re: the "voices" of footnotes of a non-academic style: all of it seems to bear a family resemblance to Brecht's alienation techniques, which will never grow stale for me.