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How reading can save us from the digital dispersion of the self

Here are some choice passages from an insight-rich essay by historian James McWilliams at The American Scholar, in which he discusses two major and complementary options for dealing with digital technology’s epochal assault on the stable self: first, take serious and substantial steps to humanize the digital world; second, retain (or return to) a serious relationship with the physical book.

The underlying concern with the Internet is not whether it will fragment our attention spans or mold our minds to the bit-work of modernity. In the end, it will likely do both. The deeper question is what can be done when we realize that we want some control over the exchange between our brains and the Web, that we want to protect our deeper sense of self from digital media’s dominance over modern life. . . .

The essence of our dilemma, one that weighs especially heavily on Generation Xers and millennials, is that the digital world disarms our ability to oppose it while luring us with assurances of convenience. It’s critical not only that we identify this process but also that we fully understand how digital media co-opt our sense of self while inhibiting our ability to reclaim it. . . .

This is not to suggest that we should aim to abolish digital media or disconnect completely — not at all. Instead, we must learn to humanize digital life as actively as we’ve digitized human life.

No one solution can restore equity to the human-digital relationship. Still, whatever means we pursue must be readily available (and cheap) and offer the convenience of information, entertainment, and social engagement while promoting identity-building experiences that anchor the self in society. Plato might not have approved, but the tool that’s best suited to achieve these goals today is an object so simple that I can almost feel the eye-rolls coming in response to such a nostalgic fix for a modern dilemma: the book. Saving the self in the age of the selfie may require nothing more or less complicated than recovering the lost art of serious reading. . . .

[A]s the fog of digital life descends, making us increasingly stressed out and unempathetic, solipsistic yet globally connected, and seeking solutions in the crucible of our own angst, it’s worth reiterating what reading does for the searching self. A physical book, which liberates us from pop-up ads and the temptation to click into oblivion when the prose gets dull, represents everything that an identity requires to discover Heidegger’s nearness amid digital tyranny. It offers immersion into inner experience, engagement in impassioned discussion, humility within a larger community, and the affirmation of an ineluctable quest to experience the consciousness of fellow humans. In this way, books can save us.

Full text: “Saving the Self in the Age of the Selfie

Related reading:

The serendipity of irrelevant reading

From biblical theologian Wesley Hill in First Things:

Irrelevant reading is the sort of reading you do when you pick up a book that, you fear, has nothing whatever to say to your present concern, the thing that’s driving you to want to read in the first place. Say you’re a teacher and you want to learn more about your craft. You may pick up Ken Bain’s marvelous book What the Best College Teachers Do and read it dutifully, annotating the margins and writing pieces of advice to yourself about next year’s lesson plans. But then, on your nightstand, say, you plop Chaim Potok’s novel The Promise down, since you’ve told yourself you’d read it ever since finishing its prequel The Chosen a couple of years ago. Late one night, you stay up and finish it. And you read that gripping scene in the yeshiva where the protagonist Reuven is quizzed mercilessly about arcana from the Talmud, and suddenly, you see not only the kind of teacher you need to be (Socratic, inspiring, relishing the mysterious complexity of your subject) but also find the inspiration you need to finish that next lecture. Your supposedly irrelevant fiction reading becomes more, or at least as, important to you as your allegedly more relevant textbook. And you grasp intuitively what my friend Luke Neff once put into a pithy saying: “Cultural omnivores make the best teachers.”

. . . Not all reading should be “irrelevant.” Some should be assiduous study of the key texts in one’s field. Other reading, the especially pleasurable kind, should be purely recreational. But when one is reading widely, there’s a special kind of delight that emerges when an evidently immaterial book suddenly intersects with what you most need to know in that moment. There’s no telling when such a moment may arrive, so it’s best to keep up a habit of irrelevant reading.

I sometimes tell my students the most important reading they’ll do for one of my classes at the seminary where I teach may well be the reading I never thought to assign.

MORE: “In Praise of Irrelevant Reading

Teeming Links – September 20, 2013

FireHeadImage courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Today’s opening word comes from novelist and National Book Award winner Richard Powers, speaking to The Believer magazine in 2007 about the unique value of reading — and specifically, reading fiction — in helping to “deliver us from certainty” during an age when a great deal of evil arises from a surplus of that empathy-less state of mind:

We read to escape ourselves and become someone else, at least for a little while. Fiction is one long, sensuous derangement of familiarity through altered point of view. How would you recognize your world if it wasn’t yours? What might you look and feel like if you weren’t you? We can survive the disorientation; we even love immersing ourselves in it, so long as the trip is controllable and we can return to our own lives when the book ends. Fiction plays on that overlap between self-composure and total, alien bewilderment, and it navigates by estrangement. As the pioneer neuropsychologist A. R. Luria once wrote, “To find the soul it is necessary to lose it.” To read another’s story, you have to lose yours.

. . . It seems to me that evil . . . might be the willful destruction of empathy. Evil is the refusal to see oneself in others. . . . I truly don’t know what role the novelist can play in a time of rising self-righteousness and escalating evil. Any story novelists create to reflect life accurately will now have to be improvised, provisional, and bewildered. But I do know that when I read a particularly moving and achieved work of fiction, I feel myself succumbing to all kinds of contagious rearrangement. Only inhabiting another’s story can deliver us from certainty.

. . . Our need for fiction also betrays a desire for kinds of knowing that nonfiction can’t easily reach. Nonfiction can assert; fiction can show asserters, and show what happens when assertions crash. Fiction can focalize and situate worldviews, pitching different perspectives and agendas against each other, linking beliefs to their believers, reflecting facts through their interpreters and interpreters through their facts. Fiction is a spreading, polysemous, relational network that captures the way that we and our worlds create each other. Whenever the best nonfiction really needs to persuade or clarify, it resorts to story. A chemist can say how atoms bond. A molecular biologist can say how a mutagen disrupts a chemical bond and causes a mutation. A geneticist can identify a mutation and develop a working screen for it. Clergy and ethicists can debate the social consequences of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis. A journalist can interview two parents in a Chicago suburb who are wrestling with their faith while seeking to bear a child free of inheritable disease. But only a novelist can put all these actors and dozens more into the shared story they all tell, and make that story rearrange some readers’ viscera.

— “Interview with Richard Powers,” The Believer, February 2007

(Hat tip to Jesús Olmo for calling this interview to my attention.)

* * *

Not One Top Wall Street Executive Has Been Convicted of Criminal Charges Related to 2008 Crisis (Reuters – The Huffington Post)
“Five years on from the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, the debate over how to hold senior bank bosses to account for failures is far from over, but legal sanctions for top executives remain a largely remote threat.”

Online Security Pioneer Predicts Grim Future (LiveScience)
“One of the creators of Secure Socket Layer (SSL) encryption believes that the future of Internet security will see everyday users getting the short end of the stick. The United States’ National Security Agency (NSA) has likely compromised SSL, one of the foremost methods of Internet encryption. ‘There will be a huge pressure to catch up to NSA, and where this leads is not pretty.'”

CDC Threat Report: ‘We Will Soon Be in a Post-Antibiotic Era’ (Wired)
“The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has just published a first-of-its-kind assessment of the threat the country faces from antibiotic-resistant organisms. ‘If we are not careful, we will soon be in a post-antibiotic era,’ Dr. Tom Frieden, the CDC’s director, said in a media briefing. ‘And for some patients and for some microbes, we are already there.'”

Class Is Seen Dividing Harvard Business School (The New York Times)
Truly bothersome information on the way the ultrawealthy are segregating themselves into a walled-off elite at America’s premier business school. Sign of the times. Culture replicating itself from above and below.

The More a Society Coerces Its People, the Greater the Chance of Mental Illness (AlterNet)
“Coercion — the use of physical, legal, chemical, psychological, financial, and other forces to gain compliance — is intrinsic to our society’s employment, schooling and parenting. . . . [The partnership between Big Pharma and Big Money] has helped bury the commonsense reality that an extremely coercive society creates enormous fear and resentment, which results in miserable marriages, unhappy families and severe emotional and behavioral problems.”

Science Confirms The Obvious: Pharmaceutical Ads Are Misleading (Popular Science)
“The U.S. is one of only two countries in the world that allows pharmaceutical companies to market their products directly to consumers — in commercials like those cute little Zoloft ads and all those coy Viagra spots. Somewhat unsurprisingly, a new study finds that when over-the-counter and prescription drug companies make commercials trying to sell the public on their product, they’re not always the most truthful.”

Reparative Compulsions (The New Inquiry)
“Social media works similarly [to gambling casinos], aiming to ensconce users in a total environment that ministers to their anxieties by stimulating them in a routinized fashion. . . . Is anyone thinking of me? What are people doing? Do I belong? Am I connected? These continuous processes allow us to digest our memories, experiences and fears and excrete commercially useful information.”

Stephen King: True compassion lies at the heart of horror (The Telegraph)
“Stephen King’s books convey terror through character in a way that films never can. . . . This makes King different from the horror writers of a previous generation — Dennis Wheatley with his wicked aristocrats or H P Lovecraft with his luxuriant, ornate prose.”

David Attenborough: “I believe the Abominable Snowman may be real” (Radio Times)
Hat tip to Matt Staggs at Disinfo. “The world-renowned naturalist and broadcaster says he thinks the creature of Himalayan legend — which has a North American cousin known as Bigfoot or Sasquatch — could be much more than a myth.”

Unholy mystery (Aeon)
How fictional detectives, in the wake of the cultural religious disillusionments following the advent of Darwinian evolutionary theory, came to take the place of priests and shamans in the modern secular mind.

Brazilian Believers of Hidden Religion Step out of Shadows (NPR)
On the new and increasing mainstream cultural status of Afro-Brazilian religions like Candomblé, which are based on the experience of spirit possession, and which are coming forward for the first time to assert a claim to above-board political, economic, and social power. “Followers believe in one all-powerful god who is served by lesser deities. Individual initiates have their personal guiding deity, who acts as an inspiration and protector. There is no concept of good or evil, only individual destiny.”

Athanasius Kircher’s Theatre of Marvels (Joscelyn Godwin for New Dawn)
“The museum of Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680) in the Jesuit College of Rome was an obligatory stop for high-class tourists, from John Evelyn the diarist to Queen Christina of Sweden, but they never knew what to expect. . . . By the time of his death Kircher’s world view was already under demolition by the Scientific Revolution.”

Frontispiece to Athanasius Kircher's Oedipus Aegyptiacus, published in 1652-1654. By .Ihcoyc at en.wikipedia [Public domain or Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Frontispiece to Athanasius Kircher’s Oedipus Aegyptiacus, published in 1652-1654. By .Ihcoyc at en.wikipedia [Public domain or Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

NSA director modeled war room after Star Trek’s Enterprise (PBS Newshour)
“In an in-depth profile of NSA Director Keith B. Alexander, Foreign Policy reveals that one of the ways the general endeared himself to lawmakers and officials was to make them feel like Jean-Luc Picard, captain of the starship Enterprise from the TV series ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation.'”

Educating the Potential Human — Skepticism, Psychical Research and a New Age of Reason (David Metcalfe for Disinfo)
“Whatever one’s personal beliefs on the subject of anomalous experience, it seems a bit blind not to realize that much of the heated conversation on the topic has nothing to do with actual understanding, and plays directly into the hands of profiteers of one sort or another, even down to the most mundane level of ego stroking experts on both sides who use the lack of clarity in the situation to support their personal brands.”

A New Story of the People (Charles Eisenstein)
A brilliant portion of Eisenstein’s talk at TEDxWhitechapel, set to a compelling video complement, that explores the process of changing the world by changing our narrative about it. “The greatest illusion of this world is the illusion of separation.”

It’s reading vs. screen culture — and screens are winning

Yesterday I posted some excerpts from and commentary on last weekend’s interview with Stephen King in Parade magazine, in which King says he’s uneasy about the future of reading in an increasingly screen-oriented culture. The main data point he cites in this regard is his experience of teaching a couple of writing seminars to Canadian high school students last year and finding that although the students were very bright,  their written language skills — and by implication their reading skills — were dismal. (See “Stephen King on writing, inner dictation, and his fears for the future of reading.”)

Following on from this, and for what it’s worth, I can confirm King’s observations and worries from my own 13 years of experience as a teacher, first in high school and now in college. The scary things you’re hearing about the collective state of literacy, or rather a-literacy, among the screen-reared generation are not just hype, not just hand-wringing, not just empty Chicken Little-ism. It really and truly is the case that among people under, say, 30 years of age, the very idea of reading, the attitude and sensibility that says reading is something desirable or worthwhile or even, in many cases, tolerable, is locked in mortal combat with the psychic-gravitational pull of screens and visual media culture. And it looks for all the world as if the ruling idea from the Highlander mythos — that “There can be only one” — is fully in play. And reading is losing the war. Badly. Read the rest of this entry

Stephen King on writing, inner dictation, and his fears for the future of reading

There’s a nifty interview with Stephen King in last weekend’s edition of that bastion of substantive journalism, Parade magazine. It’s actually the cover feature, which knocks the usually fluff-filled magazine up a notch in my (probably immaterial) estimation.

Among the highlights are the following points of interest:

King explains why he’s not a horror writer:

Interviewer Ken Tucker: [Your new novel] Joyland has supernatural elements, but it isn’t a horror novel.

Stephen King: I’ve been typed as a horror writer, and I’ve always said to people, “I don’t care what you call me as long as the checks don’t bounce and the family gets fed.” But I never saw myself that way. I just saw myself as a novelist.

King explains the mysterious fact of inner guidance in the act of writing:

I’m a situational writer. You give me a situation, like a writer gets in a car crash, breaks his leg, is kidnapped by his number-one fan, and is kept in a cabin and forced to write a book — everything else springs from there. You really don’t have to work once you’ve had the idea. All you have to do is kind of take dictation from something inside.

King describes his uneasiness about the future of reading in a screen-dominated culture:

Tucker: Do you think that reading occupies the same importance for kids today?

King: No, absolutely not. I think it’s because they’re so screen-oriented [TVs, computers, smartphones]. They do read — girls in particular read a lot. They have a tendency to go toward the paranormal, romances, Twilight and stuff like that. And then it starts to taper off because other things take precedence, like the Kardashian sisters. I did a couple of writing seminars in Canada last year with high school kids. These were the bright kids, Ken; they all have computers, but they can’t spell. Because spell-check won’t [help] you if you don’t know “through” from “threw.” I told them, “If you can read in the 21st century, you own the world.” Because you learn to write from reading. But there are so many other byways for the consciousness to go down now; it makes me uneasy.

MORE: “A Rare Interview with Master Storyteller Stephen King

Note that in addition to reading the interview, you can listen to portions of King’s actual conversation with the interviewer, and also watch him posing for a Parade photo shoot,  in this brief “Behind the Scenes” video:

From Michael Dirda, “an exhortation to read, read, read”

Over at The American Scholar, Michael Dirda is retiring his wonderful “Browsings” column. (In case you’re somehow unaware of Michael Dirda — a crazy thought — he “is a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and the author of the memoir An Open Book and of four collections of essays: Readings, Bound to Please, Book by Book, and Classics for Pleasure. His most recent book, part of Princeton’s Writers on Writers series, is On Conan Doyle. Dirda is also a frequent lecturer and an occasional college teacher.”)

Naturally, his column, which has been published weekly for the past year, is devoted to exploring, reflecting, meditating on, and celebrating the world of books and reading, as refracted through Michael’s magnificently rich sensibility for such things. The final installment, published just yesterday, takes the form of “an exhortation to read, read, read,” as articulated in these oh-so-choice words of wisdom about the deep meaning of books as such:

Books don’t just furnish a room. A personal library is a reflection of who you are and who you want to be, of what you value and what you desire, of how much you know and how much more you’d like to know. When I was growing up, there used to be a magisterial librarian’s guide entitled Living with Books. I think that’s the right idea. Digital texts are all well and good, but books on shelves are a presence in your life. As such, they become a part of your day-to-day existence, reminding you, chastising you, calling to you … [T]he world is full of wonderful stories, heartbreakingly beautiful and witty poems, thrilling works of history, biography, and philosophy. They will make you laugh, or hug yourself with pleasure, or deepen your thinking, or move you as profoundly as any experience this side of a serious love affair.

— Michael Dirda, “A Positively, Final Appearance,” Browsings, The American Scholar, February 1, 2013

If such thoughts and sentiments speak to you, then be advised that much wonderful reading awaits you in the column’s previous installments.

My Own Personal Tesseract: Reflections on ‘A Wrinkle in Time’

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Although my work as an author has been overwhelmingly centered in realms of darkness and horror, as cross-fertilized by my deep and personal focus on matters of religion, philosophy, and psychology, I have also been a lifelong lover of fantasy and science fiction. So perhaps it’s not surprising that one of the foundational books in my life has been A Wrinkle in Time, which wraps up all of these genres, themes, and concerns inside a story, a writing style, and a sensibility that together epitomize the word “wonderful.” Interestingly, over the past decade-plus of my involvement in professional writing and publishing, I’ve found that many other authors who likewise work in the field labeled “horror” count Wrinkle as one of their most cherished books.

Yesterday I caught wind of the fact that a graphic novel adaptation has just been released. I did a bit of looking into it. This involved reading several plot summaries and celebrations of the original novel. And, appropriately enough, it all sent my thoughts and emotions soaring backward and forward through time. Read the rest of this entry

The power of a memorized poem

Here are some wise and lovely thoughts on the deep value of memorizing poetry from NYU English professor Catherine Robson, author of Heart Beats: Everyday Life and the Memorized Poem.

It may be tempting to lament the passing of an era when one and all were seemingly united by a joint stock of poetic knowledge stored inside their heads, but the once-mandatory exercise was not universally beloved. For some, standing tongue-tied in front of mocking classmates and a threatening teacher when the words wouldn’t come was a hated and humiliating ordeal. For others — perhaps for the majority — it was just something to get through, a practice that meant little at the time, and still less later on.

But there’s a world of difference between being forced to memorize a poem and choosing to do it off one’s own bat. The pleasures of this exercise are many: It can be amusing or moving, challenging and satisfying, simple or profound. And sometimes it provides much more than pleasure.

Clint Eastwood’s 2009 movie, Invictus, dwells upon the strength that Nelson Mandela drew from his memory of W.E. Henley’s poem during 27 years of captivity. And one of the most devastating chapters in If This Is a Man, Primo Levi’s account of his experiences in Auschwitz, records the moment when the author recites the Ulysses canto from the Inferno to a fellow inmate and understands for the first time the terrifying implications of Dante’s words. There are memoirs aplenty about the degradations of life in the Soviet gulag, in which survivors give thanks for the saving grace of Pushkin’s poetry committed to memory in happier days.

When everything else has been taken from you, a memorized poem remains. It is there to remind you of who you once were, who you are now, and who you might be. It is there to remind you that there is a world beyond the self, a world in which someone once joined word and word and word to make something that had never existed before, a world in which the possibility for change, for seeing differently, is always there. It is there to remind you that you are not alone. When you recite a poem, you are in conversation with another.

You don’t need to be in desperate circumstances to appreciate the power of the memorized poem. You don’t even need a power cut. Go on, try it. Consider beginning with a poem written in the first person—perhaps Thomas Hardy’s “I Look Into My Glass,” Dickinson’s “I dwell in Possibility,” or those famous 16 lines by Henley. And then ask yourself: Where does the “I” of the poem end and your “I” begin?

— Catherine Robson, “Why Memorize a Poem?The Chronicle of Higher Education, November 26, 2012

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Image: “Young Man Reading by Candlelight” by Matthias Stom (fl. 1615–1649) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“The book is elegiac. Books, I think, are dead.”

Here’s an excerpt worth pondering from a brief email interview with humorist, critic, and author Joe Queenan at The New York Times‘ ArtBeat blog, occasioned by the publication of Queenan’s new memoir One for the Books, about his lifetime of passionate engagement with books and “his own eccentric reading style.”

Q. One of your book’s biggest themes is the superiority of books to
 e-readers. Are you optimistic about the future of books on paper? And do 
you consider this book more of an early eulogy or a rallying cry?

A. The book is elegiac. Books, I think, are dead. You cannot fight the zeitgeist and you cannot fight corporations. The genius of corporations is that they force you to make decisions about how you will live your life and then beguile you into thinking that it was all your choice. Compact discs are not superior to vinyl. E-readers are not superior to books. Lite beer is not the great leap forward. A society that replaces seven-tier wedding cakes with lo-fat cupcakes is a society that deserves to be put to the sword. But you can’t fight City Hall. I also believe that everything that happens to you as you grow older makes it easier to die, because the world you once lived in, and presumably loved, is gone. As I have said before, when Keith Richards goes, I’m going too. Same deal with books.

— John Williams, “‘Books, I Think, Are Dead’: Joe Queenan Talks About One for the Books,” ArtsBeat, The New York Times, November 30, 2012

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Recommended Reading 32

This week: a report from Germany’s Der Spiegel about America’s awesome and incontrovertible decline; a summary and review of Morris Berman’s twilight-and-decline-of-America trilogy; thoughts on the rise of the new plutocracy; a lament for the science fiction future that never was, along with a profound and subversive sociocultural analysis of why it wasn’t; thoughts on the new art-and-entertainment category of “the upper middle brow” and its implicit danger as a spiritual narcotic; two cogent examinations of the meaning and fate of books; an article about the mainstream rise of the multiverse model of cosmology and its mind-blowing philosophical and personal implications; a speculation about the possibility that out-of-body experiences may really tell us something about the reality of disembodied consciousness; and a wonderful article by Erik Davis about the current renaissance of psychedelic research. Read the rest of this entry