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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

Resist Dystopia: Learn to Enjoy Reading Shakespeare

At the conclusion of Technopoly, Neil Postman lays out his concept of the “loving resistance fighter,” someone who keeps an open heart and a strong hold on the symbols and narratives of liberty, honor, intelligence, etc., that made America (and, by extension, other modern democracies) great, while deliberately resisting the coarsening, dumbing, soul-killing influence of the modern-day totalitarian technocracy.

This essay by Joseph Smigelski, community college English instructor in Northern California, strikes me as falling right in line with Postman’s vision. It also resonates with Ray Bradbury and Morris Berman: it’s a clear, doable, and direct way of enacting the monastic option amid our Fahrenheit 451-like circumstance.

The other day, I received a letter from a friend who wrote, “Unfortunately, I find him almost impossible to understand…. Is there a secret to comprehending Shakespeare? I’d really like to read him, and any hints would be appreciated.” My friend is not a philistine but a well-read woman who struggled through the major plays in school and has seen various theatrical productions and film versions of them. She obviously respects and values the immortal words of William Shakespeare and would like to join ranks with the many who enjoy reading him. So I was distressed by her candid admission of having such difficulty with his language. I am sure that many of you will sympathize with her and agree in a knee-jerk fashion that, yes, Shakespeare is indeed impossible to understand. But I think the problem is not with William Shakespeare but with you. Before you take offense, let me explain.

The first thing you have to do when confronting Shakespeare is break down the wall of resistance that has been constructed between you and him by a cultural atmosphere fraught with willful misunderstanding. For instance, how many times have you heard someone say that Shakespeare wrote in Old English or Middle English? That right there might be enough to put you off. But both of those claims are patently false … Shakespeare wrote in Modern English, the same language that we speak today … Your problem with understanding Shakespeare is due to his language being poetic. Most of your everyday discourse has become so pedestrian that your ears have become unable to tune in to language that aspires to greater heights. This may or may not be your fault. We all are aware that the state of education in this country is woefully bleak. But why submit to the prevailing philistine attitude without a fight?

… Whatever else you do, be sure to avoid such abominations as the “No Fear Shakespeare” and the “Shakespeare Made Easy” series, both of which should be more aptly titled “The Reader Made Stupid” series.

… [R]emember the old saying: Nothing worth having comes easily. The enjoyment kicks in when you really start to get it, when you finally meet William Shakespeare on his own turf and his language begins to open new doors in your consciousness.

— Joseph Smigelski, “How to Enjoy Reading Shakespeare,” The Huffington Post, April 7, 2010

What I read in 2009

In 2009 I accomplished something in my life as a reader that I had never before accomplished: I kept a list — I’m talking about a full list — of everything I read. Not just books, but short fiction, poetry, and — in the most gargantuan category of all — articles, essays, and reviews. I figured it would prove a helpful exercise in self-reflection for me to have available at a glance the full scope of my reading activities for a given calendar year.

Of course, there are omissions. Specifically, I chose to leave out several hundred, or it may have been several thousand, articles and reports that I read in the course of my pro blogging pursuits. I just didn’t feel led to note down all of those items related to health reform, home healthcare, industrial HVAC, green building, etc., that I was obliged to research for my clients. The reading list below consists of things I read by choice, not out of necessity.

In an interesting development, by the time June arrived I found that I was approaching all of my reading with the thought of the list hanging in the back of my head. At times I even found myself involuntarily judging whether or not to read something by whether or not I thought it would look good on the list. Fortunately, I managed to recognize and squash that idiocy fairly quickly.

Note that I’m embarrassed at the ridiculous stuntedness of the poetry section and the complete absence of a drama section. Also note that I read far more short fiction that what appears in the section labeled as such, since eight of the books that I read in full or in part were short fiction collections.

Finally, I’ll point out that for my own future reference, I frequently included bracketed snippets of what each piece was about in the listing of essays and articles etc., since many of the titles didn’t do the trick on their own.

I sometimes enjoy reading other people’s end-of-the-year reading lists. I hope you’ll enjoy this one. I probably won’t do it again in 2010, or at least not in such detail. Too much work.

My 2009 reading list

BOOKS read in full:

  • Brian Evenson, Last Days (1998)
  • Patrick Harpur, Daimonic Reality: A Field Guide to the Otherworld (2004; 1993)
  • Nick Mamatas, Move Underground (2004)
  • —, You Might Sleep (2009)
  • Mark Samuels, Glyphotech and Other Macabre Processes (2008)
  • Michael Shea, I, Said the Fly, in The Sixth Omni Book of Science Fiction (1989)
  • Douglas Smith, Impossibilia (2008)
  • Bram Stoker, Dracula (1897)
  • Simon Strantzas, Beneath the Surface (2008)
  • Donald N. Wood, Post-Intellectualism and the Decline of Democracy: The Failure of Reason and Responsibility (1996)

BOOKS read in significant excerpts:

  • Laird Barron, The Imago Sequence and Other Stories (2007)
  • Timothy K. Beal, Religion and Its Monsters (2002)
  • Douglas E. Cowan, Sacred Terror: Religion and Horror on the Silver Screen (2008)
  • Donald F. Glut, The Dracula Book (1975)
  • Anthony Masters, The Natural History of the Vampire (1972)
  • Raymond T. McNally, ed.,  A Clutch of Vampires (1974)
  • Raymond T. McNally and Radu Florescu, In Search of Dracula: The History of Dracula and Vampires (1994, revised edition)
  • Peter Penzoldt, The Supernatural in Fiction (1965 [1952])
  • James B. Twitchell, Dreadful Pleasures: An Anatomy of Modern Horror (1985)
  • —, The Living Dead: A Study of the Vampire in Romantic Literature (1981)
  • T.M. Wright, Bone Soup (2009)

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Those who love life do not read

Morgan Freeman as Easy Reader smiles in the face of existential dread -- because he reads!

Morgan Freeman as Easy Reader smiles in the face of existential dread -- because he reads!

From “The Myth Maker” (Guardian, June 4, 2005), an edited extract of the English translation of Michel Houellebecq’s H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life (which, I can attest, is an astonishingly powerful and moving book):

Those who love life do not read. Nor do they go to the movies, actually. No matter what might be said, access to the artistic universe is more or less entirely the preserve of those who are a little fed up with the world.

Ponder that for awhile. Is the enjoyment — let alone the making — of art truly the preserve of those who are terminally dissatisfied with the world as it presents itself  in existential immediacy? I have often suspected so. This is a matter fit for much prolonged reflection.

At the very least, it imparts an entirely subversive context to all of the saccharine good intentions of the television public service announcements and teacherly admonitions that many of us grew up with. And what of poor Easy Reader from The Electric Company? Was he really just a disguised Camus peddling his existential dread to unsuspecting children?

Impressions and advice from a new Kindle DX owner

The Kindle DX

The Kindle DX

A few weeks ago I announced here that I had decided to get an e-reader. Well, I’ve gone and pulled the trigger and am now the owner of a new Kindle DX, which I bought as a gift to myself for my birthday. (Clever man that I am, I asked family members who intended to give me a gift to make it cash in support of the purchase.)

And I’m here to tell you that currently, these three weeks in, I’m completely delighted with the thing.

Please note that I say this as somebody who for years has loathed reading e-books on a computer screen, to the point of wanting to slit my wrists or someone else’s. I also say it as someone who, although he lives half his life on the Internet at this point, is possessed of a red-hot Luddite impulse when it comes to techno-evangelism, and a tendency to regard modern digital media culture through a dystopian lens.

But as a book reviewer I often receive pdfs instead of paper books, and for personal and professional reasons I also read vast amounts of articles and essays on the Web. I’m talking about scores of them per week. This has become not just a pain but a biblical millstone around my neck. And I’m here to tell you that my experience with the Kindle has been like a liberation from prison. I’m now a believer. If this is the Matrix, then plug me in.

IMPRESSIONS

I think the Kindle’s salutary effect may come from a combination of two things: the device’s portability, since it effectively serves as a book, or actually a compact library of texts, that I can carry anywhere instead of being chained to my laptop computer; and the E Ink technology that makes the visual experience qualitatively different from reading text on a backlit computer screen, and more like (although not identical to) reading print on paper. For me, at least, reading books etc. on the Kindle really does substitute quite nicely for reading text from a printed book, although I’m certainly not about to abandon the latter.

So now my take on e-books is radically changed. I have always hated them without measure, but it turns out it was the interface (my chained-ness to a computer plus the pixelated backlit visual nightmare) that accounted for the hating. I had half-suspected this might be the case, and had been told as much by a few friends, who have now been proved right. Of course, I’m sure a Sony Reader or another device using the E Ink technology — and there are several — would achieve exactly the same effect. I researched the market heavily before making my purchase, so I know there’s more than one worthy e-reader out there, and the market is getting ready to explode with new competition. Personally, I’m most eager to see how the forthcoming Plastic Logic and IREX readers perform, especially given their new partnerships with Barnes & Noble.

But for now I’m thrilled with my Kindle DX, whose large screen I wouldn’t want to trade for even a second for the smaller Kindle or Kindle 2 (or Sony Reader), and nearly all of whose features — page turning, bookmarking, note taking — are wonderfully intuitive. The thing really and truly promises to “reinvigorate my reading life,” as I have heard a few other owners describe their experience of it. I’m presently using it to reread Dracula — the e-book version of the Modern Library edition, which I got cheap-cheap from Amazon — as well as a host of essays, studies, and papers about vampires and vampirism in preparation for writing my essay about religion and vampires for the forthcoming Encyclopedia of the Vampire: The Living Dead in Myth, Legend and Popular Culture (Greenwood Press, 2010), edited by S.T. Joshi. And the experience from both a scholarly and a readerly-enjoyment  perspective is truly excellent.

GENERAL E-READER ADVICE

Before making my purchase I came to really appreciate any useful advice I could find, so I figured I’d pass on some of my own.

Here’s some general advice if you’re considering diving into the e-reader fray:

  • If you can, for Cthulhu’s sake go for the Kindle DX with its bigger screen. I have messed with the other, smaller readers — the previous Kindles and the Sony Readers — and while they are indeed cool, I can tell you that the reading experience is immeasurably enhanced by the larger screen size of the DX, which allows for more words per page and an overall smoother, more satisfying time. Of course, if you wait just a few months you’ll see a slew of new large-screen readers hitting the market, so that’s something to consider, too.
  • There are several really excellent free e-book resources that you’ll want to look into for stocking your e-reader: Feedbooks, Munseys, Open Library, and more. Plus there is, of course, the longstanding universe of e-texts a la Project Gutenberg, the Internet Classics Archive, and so on. All of the texts at these latter sites can be converted for reading on e-readers. (For some specific advice about doing this on the Kindle, see the next section below.)
  • Try to get your hands on one or more e-readers so that you can actually test drive them before making your decision. Short of that, avail yourself of the really excellent online resources — especially the sites offering comparisons of different e-readers — that you can find through some careful searching

ADVICE FOR NEW AND PROSPECTIVE KINDLE OWNERS

Here’s some specific advice for those of the Amazonian tribe:

  • Go to the Kindle store at Amazon and check out the top 100 list. You’ll find many free books listed there. Simply click to “buy” them and they’ll be transferred instantly and wirelessly — and free of charge — to your Kindle.
  • Contrary to widespread rumor, the Kindle 2 can handle pdfs. It just can’t do so natively, which means you have to take pdfs through a conversion process instead of dumping them directly to the device. The DX, by contrast, does have native pdf capabilities, which is nice, but don’t pay the extra money for it — and it is a lot! — if you’re thinking that one of the benefits will be the ability to use pdfs, since Kindle 2 can do it, too.
  • If you’re looking to put your own files on your Kindle, bear in mind that all of them will have to be converted to a Kindle-friendly format, unless you’re transferring pdfs to a Kindle DX. You can do this in one of two ways. In the first you’ll attach the file to an email and send it to your Kindle user address, which you’ll be given when you buy the device. The format is “username@kindle.com.” Sending files to this address will cost you something like 15 cents each (charged to your Amazon account) and the files will show up in Kindle format automatically on your device via Amazon’s so-called Whispernet wireless connection. But — and here’s the second method — you can also do this for free by adding the word “free” to the address, thus: “username@free.kindle.com.” This method will cause the converted files to show up in your email in-box, after which you’ll have to hook your computer to your Kindle with a USB cord (provided with your purchase of the thing) and do a manual transfer.
  • Although the Kindle file conversion service can handle many file types, I’ve personally gotten the best results — as in, the most consistent in terms of the resultant formatting — from sending documents saved in Rich Text Format (RTF). Also bear in mind that, as already mentioned, you don’t have to send pdfs through the file conversion service if you have a Kindle DX, since it has that native ability to handle such files. But pdfs are NOT zoomable on the Kindle, and you can’t use the text highlighting and note-adding and read-aloud functions with them. The Kindle just displays pdfs at a single size in a frozen format, as it were, and lets you read them. This being the case, if you’re making your own files to transfer to the Kindle, I really recommend that you save them as RTFs instead of converting them to pdfs, and then send them through the file conversion process in order to be able to take advantage of the various cool features. Also bear in mind that pdf texts can show up as terribly small and difficult to read on the Kindle’s screen, although the DX’s ability to show you texts in landscape format helps to enlarge things. If you have to use or make pdfs for Kindle reading, you’ll want to make sure the texts are plenty big if all possible.
  • Contrary to widespread rumor, the Kindle 2 can handle pdfs. It just can’t do so natively, which means you have to take pdfs through a conversion process instead of dumping them directly to the device. The DX, by contrast, does have native pdf capabilities, which is nice, but don’t pay the extra money for it — and it is a lot! — if you’re thinking that one of the benefits will be the ability to use pdfs, since Kindle 2 can do it, too.
Contrary to widespread rumor, the Kindle 2 can handle pdfs. It just can’t do so natively, which means you have to take pdfs through a conversion process instead of dumping them directly to the device. The DX, by contrast, does have native pdf capabilities, which is nice, but don’t pay the extra money for it — and it is a lot! — if you’re thinking that one of the benefits will be the ability to use pdfs, since Kindle 2 can do it, too.

  • Contrary to widespread rumor, the Kindle 2 can handle pdfs. It just can’t do so natively, which means you have to take pdfs through a conversion process instead of dumping them directly to the device. The DX, by contrast, does have native pdf capabilities, which is nice, but don’t pay the extra money for it — and it is a lot! — if you’re thinking that one of the benefits will be the ability to use pdfs, since Kindle 2 can do it, too.

The importance of reading long, difficult, serious books

I’m finally taking the plunge and getting an e-book reader, either a Sony Reader or a Kindle. My birthday is next month and I’m asking my family to contribute funds toward the cause. On a regular basis I read so very many things in electronic format, both for my professional writing activities and for my personal daily diet of articles, essays, blog posts, etc., that the ability to unchain myself from the laptop and do some of this reading in a more user-friendly format — nicer on the eye, more accessible in the moment (sitting in a doctor’s waiting room, for example); in a more traditional book-ish manner, that is — will be a blessing of biblical proportions.

That said, I still agree so very passionately with the following words from law professor and best-selling author Stephen L. Carter, whose full essay you really must read (see the link after the excerpt):

Books are essential to democracy. Not literacy, although literacy is important. Not reading, although reading is wonderful. But books themselves, the actual physical volumes on the shelves of libraries and stores and homes, send a message through their very existence. In a world in which most things seem ephemeral, books imply permanence: that there exist ideas and thoughts of sufficient weight that they are worth preserving in a physical form that is expensive to produce and takes up space. And a book, once out there, cannot be recalled. The author who changes his mind cannot just take down the page.

….A book matches perfectly the ideal of reflection.The tougher the text, the more reflective we must be in absorbing it. This suggests the importance of reading books that are difficult. Long books. Hard books. Books with which we have to struggle. The hard work of serious reading mirrors the hard work of serious governing — and, in a democracy, governing is a responsibility all citizens share. And if we are willing to work our way through difficult texts, we are far more likely to be willing to work our way through our opponents’ difficult ideas. An important lesson of serious reading is that ideas need not be correct to be important.

….Indeed, we might say that democracy in its modern form emerged from the idea of written-ness. Absent the codex [the ancestor of what we think of as the book], ideas would still be the province of a privileged priesthood. The Internet, by hypothesis, will spread ideas to everyone. But if the form of presentation no longer signals permanence and eternity, if we are no longer encouraged to work our way through difficult texts, then we will likely see the decline of democracy and the rise of something else.

— Stephen L. Carter, “Where’s the Bailout for Publishing?” March 17, 2009

Virtually invincible ignorance in America’s public schools

From time to time I check out the latest activity at Education Conversation, a blog by Tammy Brennan about the problems in America’s current state-run education system. Today I stopped by and found a post from February 17 titled “The End of Literacy” that describes a situation and an experience that I have personally encountered an appalling number of times in my public school teaching career:

I tutor and here’s what I find among many of my students, as well as the host of other young people I talk to when I’m out and about: They’re bright — and ignorant. Sometimes it hardly seems worth the effort to try to talk to them about anything substantial, because I have to provide a phenomenal amount of background information before there can be any comprehension (much less conversation) — and most of them don’t have the attention span to listen to all the background.

My response: Exactly. Ms. Brennan is talking about the problem of self-compounding and self-reinforcing ignorance. In order to learn some things, you first need a basic knowledge of other things that will provide the intellectual, emotional, and cultural context to enable comprehension of the new things. Presently a great many Americans make the unconscious assumption that life at large, the American culture, family life at home, television, the Internet, church activities — something — is giving America’s young people the basic background to understand the things they’re supposed to be learning at school.

But in point of fact, the culture and so on are not providing this crucial background knowledge. The ability of kids to learn the things they’re expected to learn at school has always been predicated on the assumption that their participation in family, society, and the culture outside the school will complement the schools’ efforts. Currently this assumption is false. As I’ve argued many times here at The Teeming Brain, not only the content but the basic tenor of life outside the schools these days is either apathetic or actively hostile toward academic learning.

In my own case, I frequently feel that it’s virtually impossible to talk about meaningful issues and academic content with my high school English students on a proper high school level because I discover about two sentences into our one-sided conversation that I have to backtrack and explain a number of prior points first. Then I find that even those points draw blank stares, so I have to backtrack even further, at which juncture the situation repeats and compounds itself yet again. You get the idea. It’s all but paralyzing to the academic classroom experience, as I wrote last year in “Anna Nicole Smith Is the Fourth Horseman“:

Whenever I speak to my students, if I want to make reference to any sort of common object of knowledge in order to illustrate a point about the dramatic structure of stories, or about irony or other literary techniques, or about anything else having to do with books and literature – and it’s a daily necessity to refer to a common fund of knowledge in order to illuminate something we’re studying – I find lately that the only thing I can mention with any reasonable expectation of group familiarity is the Harry Potter phenomenon. Almost all of the teens have seen the movies. Several have read one or more of the novels. I can also refer to The Lord of the Rings, but that’s because of the popular movies; only a tiny minority of students so far (as in, two or three of them) has actually read Tolkien’s books. I do have a student who has read a couple of Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” books, so he has a minor grounding in literary fantasy.

But anyway, I simply can’t expect these kids to know much of anything, not even — and here’s the rub — about pop cultural stuff! It’s astonishing to find how many of them are oblivious to mass media culture. Not that they don’t know the names and faces of actors and bands and other celebrities, but if I mention the name of any movie director besides Rob Zombie, there’s a general look of blankness. I tried it with Spielberg once and had a couple of students respond, none too confidently, “Isn’t he the guy who made Saving Private Ryan?” I’ve also been shocked and dismayed at how many of them are functionally ignorant of Stephen King. Sure, they know some of his movies, but when it comes to the man himself the overwhelming consensus is an attitude of dull, suspicious disinterest, expressed in questions such as, “Stephen King – he’s really weird, right? Like, he’s that horror guy.” So even on the level of the pop culture crap that many of us decry, these kids’ frame of reference is shockingly narrow.

As I clarified in the op-ed “Media obsession with trivial hurts our nation,” which I boiled down from the Anna Nicole post, “It’s not that they don’t know the names of the actors and singers and other celebrities who populate their sliver-thin slice of cultural awareness. But I’ve been shocked to discover just how thin and fleeting that slice really is.”

For an extra dose of stark, staring hopelessness, consider that this isn’t a problem with just the current crop of young people but is rather one that’s been growing in American society over the course of two or three generations now. Writing exactly 50 years ago, in his 1958 essay “Our Age among the Ages,” John Crowe Ransom described declining levels of student knowledge and motivation at the university level:

It is as if a sudden invasion of barbarians had overrun the education institution. . . . We should not fear them; they are not foreigners, not our enemies. But in the last resort education is a democratic process, in which the courses are subject to the election of the applicants, and a course even when it has been elected can never rise above the intellectual passion of its pupils, or their comparative indifference. So with each new generation of students, Milton declines in the curriculum; even Shakespeare has lost heavily; Homer and Virgil are practically gone. The literary interest of the students today is 90 percent in the literature of their own age; more often than not it is found in books which do not find entry into the curriculum, and are beneath the standard which your humble servants, the teachers of literature, are trying to maintain.

Do I even need to point out the obvious fact that, as far as book literate knowledge goes, things are worse today than when Ransom wrote his essay? He said the students’ literary interests in his day were “90 percent in the literature of their own age.” At both the high school and college levels today, the reading of books at all is in decline, regardless of their content or time period. For the huge majority of teens and twenty-somethings – and I know this for a fact from several years of daily contact with average Midwestern teens — books have been partly or wholly replaced by movies, television shows, video games, YouTube videos, cell phone chats, text messaging, MySpace, instant messaging, and so on. Is it any wonder in the face of this loss of a literate focus and a common fund of literary-cultural knowledge that America’s public schools have watered their curricula down to a bare-bones minimum of technicized efficiency? How else can they deal with the stark, staring background of ignorance among their students that prevents real education, in its traditional sense, from happening?

Of course, all the schools have managed to accomplish through this intellectual/academic self-castration is to render themselves utterly tedious and irrelevant. The students know, most of them only subconsciously, that they’re just biding their time in those spiritually sterile government institutions until they can get out and pursue their real needs and wants. Which brings me back to the Education Conversation blog. I recommend a relaxed browsing of its contents for some very stimulating thoughts about the dead end that state-run schools represent. The page of quotations is particularly valuable, as evident from the following three offerings, with which I’ll end this post:

That erroneous assumption is to the effect that the aim of public education is to fill the young of the species with knowledge and awaken their intelligence, and so make them fit to discharge the duties of citizenship in an enlightened and independent manner. Nothing could be further from the truth. The aim of public education is not to spread enlightenment at all, it is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardized citizenry, to put down dissent and originality. That is its aim in the United States, whatever the pretensions of politicians, pedagogues and other such mountebanks, and that is its aim everywhere else.

– H.L. Mencken

I feel ashamed that so many of us cannot imagine a better way to do things than locking children up all day in cells instead of letting them grow up knowing their families, mingling with the world, assuming real obligations, striving to be independent and self-reliant and free.

– John Taylor Gatto

The millions of dollars which we devote every year to high-school education are, for the most part, money spent for the retarding of intelligence, the discouragement of efficiency, the stunting of character.

– Bernard Iddings Bell (1949)