The Authenticity Hoax (review)

The Authenticity Hoax
It’s a stretch to call this a review, because I mainly just wanted to purge some quotes that I’ve had lying around that I kept being lazy about sharing because they were a bit too long or needed more context than I wanted to bother with on my tumblr. Anyway. Great book, especially the first five chapters on modernity, business, art, self, etc.

On bullshit, and where to find it:

It is hardly surprising to find that the two areas of human enterprise most concerned with sincerity as opposed to truth—namely, politics and advertising—are also the two areas most steeped in bullshit. Or would it be better to say that politics and advertising are the two areas most concerned with the appearance of authenticity? This might be a distinction without a difference.

Validating the suburbs:

The people who move to the suburbs aren’t nearly as stupid or careless or brainwashed as the urbanites seem to think. They know they’re going to get a lawn, a garage, and a backyard. They know they will be miles from a store or cafe, and that they’ll have to drive everywhere. Most people move to the suburbs with eyes wide open, fully aware of the tradeoffs they are making. They are not looking for some pastoral idyll, but for more privacy, space, quiet, and parking.

On meaning in a modern world:

The search for authenticity is about the search for meaning in a world where all the traditional sources-—religion and successor ideals such as aristocracy, community, and nationalism-—have been dissolved in the acid of science, technology, capitalism, and liberal democracy. We are looking to replace the God concept with something more acceptable in a world that is not just disenchanted, but also socially flattened, cosmopolitan, individualistic, and egalitarian.

A good example of his cantankerous sarcasm. He likes jabbing at liberals:

The exact mechanism of the apocalypse is unknown, but if you troll around the Internet you can find any number of speculative scenarios. Most of them presume that there’ll be a sort of massive ecological collapse and extinction event caused by a combination of global warming, deforestation, peak oil production, overfishing, overpopulation, suburbia, megacities, bird flu, swine flu, consumer electronics, hedge funds, credit default swaps, and fast food.

With regard to recent developments in art (specifically pivoting off of Alec Duffy and his Sufjan Stevens recording):

Can you see what is happening here? It is the return of the aura, of the unique and irreproducible artistic work. Across the artistic spectrum, we are starting to see a turn toward forms of aesthetic experience and production that by their nature can’t be digitized and thrown into the maw of the freeconomy. One aspect of this is the cultivation of deliberate scarcity, which is what Alec Duffy is doing with his listening sessions. Another is the recent hipster trend to treat the city as a playground—involving staged pillow fights in the financial district, silent raves on subways, or games of kick the can that span entire neighborhoods. This fascination with works that are transient, ephemeral, participatory, and site-specific is part of the ongoing rehabilitation of the old idea of the unique, authentic work having an aura that makes it worthy of our profound respect. But in a reversal of Walter Benjamin’s analysis, the gain in deep artistic appreciation is balanced by a loss in egalitarian principle.

On consumption gravitas:

Conspicuous authenticity raises the stakes by turning the search for the authentic into a matter of utmost gravity: not only does it provide me with a meaningful life, but it is also good for society, the environment, even the entire planet. This basic fusion of the two ideals of the privately beneficial and the morally praiseworthy is the bait-and-switch at the heart of the authenticity hoax. This desire for the personal and the public to align explains why so much of what passes for authentic living has a do-gooder spin to it. Yet the essentially status-oriented nature of the activity always reveals itself eventually.

Meditations (review)


Your mind will take on the character of your most frequent thoughts: souls are dyed by thoughts.

Funny to think how I am still very much myself. Same Mark, more detail. If you overlapped all my pattern-stereotypes I had around 1992, you’d get a pretty good picture of me today of what 2012 Mark is like.

Summer of last year, I started reading more works of and about Stoicism, and that led to tumbling a lot of stoicism quotes. This was not a new interest by any means. I remember thinking Stoics were cool back in childhood, when I first learned about them. I think my interest then was more of a tough-guy, counter-culture, I-am-a-rock/island sort of thing. Maybe a way of validating introversion, independence, self-protection.

Men seek retreats for themselves–in the country, by the sea, in the hills–and you yourself are particularly prone to this yearning. But all this is quite unphilosophic, when it is open to you, at any time you want, to retreat into yourself. No retreat offers someone more quiet and relaxation than that into his own mind, especially if he can dip into thoughts there which put him at immediate and complete ease: and by ease I simply mean a well-ordered life. (4.3)

I remember picking up Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations on at least three different occasions, but never finishing. In fact, barely starting each time. Some lessons can’t be learned early, I guess. I still like the independent-minded ideas, but I think now a lot of what gets me are the ideas of acceptance, attitude, gratitude (which is the focus of the entire amazing first chapter). And, yeah, being hard on myself….

They cannot admire you for intellect. Granted–but there are many other qualities of which you cannot say, “but that is not the way I am made”. So display those virtues which are wholly in your own power–integrity, dignity, hard work, self-denial, contentment, frugality, kindness, independence, simplicity, discretion, magnanimity. Do you not see how many virtues you can already display without any excuse of lack of talent or aptitude? And yet you are still content to lag behind. (5.5)

I bookmarked the hell out of it when I was reading and made a bunch of notes to myself (hypomnema!). I’ll probably be turning back to this one for a long time to come. All the quotes below come from Martin Hammond’s translation. The numbers refer to chapter and sub-section, should you decide to pick up this book. Which you should do.

On gossip. (3.4)

Do not waste the remaining part of your life in thoughts about other people, when you are not thinking with reference to some aspect of the common good. Why deprive yourself of the time for some other task? I mean, thinking about what so-and-so is doing, and why, what he is saying or contemplating or plotting, and all that line of thought, makes you stray from the close watch on your directing mind.

On hurt and its source, our compulsion to draw conclusions and render judgement on what has befallen us. (4.7)

Remove the judgement, and you have removed the thought “I am hurt”: removed the thought “I am hurt”, and the hurt itself is removed.

On revenge. (6.6)

The best revenge is not to be like your enemy.

On transience. There were several moments of this kind of beautiful writing that makes you slow down or rest the book and think it over. (6.15)

Some things are hurrying to come into being, others are hurrying to be gone, and part of that which is being born is already extinguished. Flows and changes are constantly renewing the world, just as the ceaseless passage of time makes eternity ever young. In this river, then, where there can be no foothold, what should anyone prize of all that races past him? It is as if he were to begin to fancy one of the little sparrows that fly past–but already it is gone from his sight.

On history repeating and our shared universal experience. (6.37)

He who sees the present has seen all things, both all that has come to pass from everlasting and all that will be for eternity: all things are related and the same.

On adapting to and embracing what is, caring. (6.39)

Fit yourself for the matters which have fallen to your lot, and love these people among whom destiny has cast you–but your love must be genuine.

On composure, comportment, grace, style. (7.60)

The body, too, should stay firmly composed, and not fling itself about either in motion or at rest. Just as the mind displays qualities in the face, keeping it intelligent and attractive, something similar should be required of the whole body. But all this should be secured without making an obvious point of it.

On vice and keeping good company. (7.71)

It is ridiculous not to escape from one’s own vices, which is possible, while trying to escape the vices of others, which is impossible.

On change, being wrong, graciousness. (8.16)

Remember that to change course or accept correction leaves you just as free as you were. The action is your own, driven by your own impulse or judgement, indeed your own intelligence.

On looking back, looking forward, being present, letting go. (8.36)

Do not let the panorama of your life oppress you, do not dwell on all the various troubles which may have occurred in the past or may occur in the future. Just ask yourself in each instance of the present: “What is there in this work which I cannot endure or support?” You will be ashamed to make any such confession. Then remind yourself that it is neither the future nor the past which weighs on you, but always the present: and the present burden reduces, if only you can isolate it and accuse your mind of weakness if it cannot hold against something thus stripped bare.

On simplicity, kindness, perseverance, virtue. Like water off a duck’s back. (8.51)

If a man were to come up to a spring of clear, sweet water and curse it–it would still continue to bubble up water good to drink. He could throw in mud or dung: in no time the spring will break it down, wash it away, and take no color from it. How then can you secure an everlasting spring and not a cistern? By keeping yourself at all times intent on freedom–and staying kind, simple, and decent.

On fame, attention, transience, obsessions, Facebook, death. (10.34)

All things are short-lived–this is their common lot–but you pursue likes and dislikes as if all was fixed for eternity. In a little while you too will close your eyes, and soon there will be others mourning the man who buries you.

On duty, openness, constancy, honesty. (11.27)

The Pythagoreans say, “Look at the sky at dawn”–to remind ourselves of the constancy of those heavenly bodies, their perpetual round of their own duty, their order, their purity, and their nakedness. No star wears a veil.

On dying. (12.36)

It is like the officer who engaged a comic actor dismissing him from the stage. “But I have not played my five acts, only three.” “True, but in life three acts can be the whole play.” Completion is determined by that being who caused first your composition and now your dissolution. You have no part in either causation. Go then in peace: the god who lets you go is at peace with you.

What I’ve been reading, vol. iv

Gotta say, these past two months have been pretty good for reading. From the most recent to the more distant in time:
1. Why Mahler?. This might be better for people who already care at least a little bit about Mahler, one of those characters that lends to incompleteness. Like talking about his music. Too vast, too contradictory, too universal, too personal. Still, it’s a breezy, rangy biography mixed with some memoir, and it’s a good read.

2. Listen to This. Alex Ross is one of my favorite writers. This book is mostly a collection of stuff he’s written for The New Yorker. The essays I dog-eared most heavily were Chacona, Lamento, Walking Blues, Infernal Machines, The Storm of Style, Song of the Earth, Verdi’s Grip, and his writings on tour with Radiohead and Bob Dylan were interesting, too. He’s also got a great audio guide for Listen to This like the one for The Rest is Noise (which is awesome).

3. The Art of Non-Conformity. Got curious about this one because I recognized the brand. The blog is better.

4. The Music Instinct. Author Philip Ball struck me first and foremost as a very fair writer. It seems like he doesn’t have very many bones to pick, aside from the fact that we should stay open-minded and open-eared. The first 60-70% of the book, the best part, is nerdy stuff about music theory—the science of pitch, scales, harmony, timbre, rhythm, etc. He’s glad to branch out across the world and not just focus on Western tradition. I found it quite good.

5. The Substance of Style. Couldn’t finish. Seemed sort of argument-by-anecdote-y, which is fine, but not what I wanted at the time.

6. The Art of Travel. This is mostly worthwhile, the first half in particular. Each section centers around a topic (Anticipation, Curiosity, the Exotic, the Sublime, etc.), a tour guide of sorts (e.g. Huysmans, Humboldt, Baudelaire, Flaubert, Van Gogh), and de Botton’s own observations and musings. It’s a good, quick read.

7. The Book of Basketball. I thought it was awesome. Rare to find any book, nonfiction or otherwise, that keeps you up late a few nights in a row.

8. On Kindness. Another one that I really, really liked and shared a bunch of quotes from. Great brain food here.

9. Steppenwolf. I read this one right after “The Moviegoer”, below. They both deal with existential angst, but this one is much more over-the-top, orotund, and, um, German. I think you could get your time’s worth just reading the first 40 pages or so.

10. The Moviegoer. I liked this one alright. Nothing much happens in the story, but the narrator’s struggles—with his own ambivalence, with relating to people, with finding satisfaction outside of passive distractions, etc.—were good food for thought.

11. Jane Eyre. This was a bit of a drag. Either I’m a curmudgeon with no heart or it’s kind of boring. This was, however, the first book I read mostly on my iPad, so it was nice to have that experience. I would have shared a bunch of quotes and bon mots, but, alas, as of now there’s no way to export highlights from iBooks other than tedious cut and paste. Maybe get to that later…

I think I’m due for some more fiction soon. More of what I’ve read lately can be found in volumes one, two, and three.

What I’ve been reading, vol. iii

Man, my reading of books has taken a nosedive since I got an iPad + Instapaper. But I’m not sure if I mind that much. The best of that stuff ends up on my tumblr, anyway. Here’s a rundown of bound volumes:
1. A Certain “Je Ne Sais Quoi”. It’s basically a long list of phrases and where they came from. It’s really good if you care about words and where they come from.

2. Coltrane on Coltrane. What comes up again and again in these profiles and interviews is how kind, humble, and reticent Coltrane is. He seems like a genuinely nice guy. Which makes it not nearly as interesting as Miles on Miles. Miles Davis is not known for being kind, humble or reticent. He’ll speechify and declaim and accuse and he’s got giant chips on his shoulder. In many of the Coltrane interviews, you see the interviewer’s paragraphs of speech balanced with just a few words from Coltrane. Too bad.

3. The Broom of the System. I couldn’t finish this one. Wallace’s nonfiction is where it’s at for me, though I’m still holding out hope for “Infinite Jest”.

4. The Happiness Hypothesis. Did I mention that you have to read this book? Yes I did. Still standing as my favorite nonfiction of 2010.

5. I Love Led Zeppelin. Some of it is funny.

6. Exit Wounds. Skip.

7. The Elegant Man was a nice style guide, if only for reasons of vocabulary and attention to detail. The nice thing about being a guy is that if you learn the classics, you’re set for life.

8. Mrs. Bridge. This is a day-to-day chronicle of suburban broken dreams, etc. Eh.

9. Finite & Infinite Games. Skip.

10. Then We Came to the End. I thought it was a nice chronicle of life in an office.

11. Once a Runner. It’s one of the classics about running, and true to its reputation, the best passages are about running and how exhilarating and exhausting it is to take it seriously. The overall plot was merely okay.

12. Ghost Wars. I really liked another book of his, but I didn’t get chance to finish this. What I read was really good.

13. The Places in Between. It’s a great travelogue and has a nice balance with explaining the history and complicated social intricacies of Afghan culture. Great read. I hear author Rory Stewart is a potential Prime Minister.

Here are my first and second reading round-ups.

A few weeks with my iPad

To fill the void in my soul, etc.
I wrote this a long time ago, it seems, and never got around to pushing the publish button. Just a few notes I typed while I was using it…

  • I can position it without worrying about how the page catches the light.
  • Very bright. Usually use it at half-brightness or less.
  • A pleasure to use at night with brightness dimmed, especially in reverse light-on-dark text.
  • Super-awesome to eat with — no smoothing or holding pages, etc. It just sits there giving me text.
  • I use my iMac less often, which also means I’ve been listening to music much less than before.
  • RSS browsing is more difficult. It’s not great with Google Reader. The upside is that I’m more picky about what I open and send to Instapaper.
  • Speaking of which, Instapaper so completely rules. Indispensable.
  • Best travel device ever?
  • Typing is much easier than I expected, especially with the autofix in place.
  • I love being able to email myself my notes really easily. I should have been doing this all along.
  • It’s also great for work stuff because it’s a reliable backstop that I *want* to use, unlike the craptop I was assigned.
  • It’s not a fixture or a centerpiece. Enter the room and it’s just lying in there with the pile of books or lost in the blankets somewhere. No biggie, very low impact on the surroundings. It doesn’t take over a space like computer or a TV does.
  • Everything is a hot zone. I wish there were a way to desensitize it sometimes.
  • The iPad has near-silent operation. This is a HUGE plus for me. No fans, no drives spinning. No clicking mouse. No mechanical tap tappity tappa on the keyboard. No paper rustling. This is a very peaceful experience.

I liked these three articles related to the iPad:

What I’ve been reading, vol. ii

I’m back for a second reading round-up (previously). With these out of the way, I can turn to a nice stack of fiction, and after that, I’m going to do a little overhaul and start prioritizing some of the recommendations I’ve gathered. As for these, I’d say #5, #6, and #8 were the best of the bunch:
1. The Jazz Ear. Ben Ratliff met with jazz musicians and listened to music with them. It sounds like such a great idea, but I think it fails in that people who play music aren’t always good at talking about it. (I should mention that I generally like Ratliff’s writing for the New York Times.) I thought the most interesting bit on creativity came from the interview with Maria Schneider, who uses one art to understand another:

When she composes, she often plays a sequence into a tape recorder, then gets up to play it back, and moves around the room to the phrases of the music, seeing how it feels when danced. “It helps me figure out where things are, and what needs to be longer.”

2. The Maltese Falcon. I loved the movie. I found the book didn’t have the snappy pace I was hoping for. Good story, though.

3. The Year of Living Biblically. Good ol’ DNF. I realized I wasn’t that interested, but I hear good things.

4. But Beautiful. Author Geoff Dyer calls it “imaginative criticism”. It’s a creative sort of nonfiction where he imagines vignettes based on the facts of some famous jazz people’s lives. More about the personalities and trials than the music. I couldn’t get in to it.

5. Blues & Chaos: The Music Writing of Robert Palmer. This is a good collection that’s particularly strong in the blues, but covers a really wide range. Many of the pieces are short ones written for newspaper, so you’ll find it easy to flip through. I liked it.

6. How Markets Fail: The Logic of Economic Calamities. The best part, which I do recommend checking out, is the first 1/3, which reviews the historic of economic thought with a special focus on theories of market efficiency and failure (e.g. Smith, Keynes, Hayek, Walras, Pareto, Fama, Arrow, etc). The rest of the book explores some recent thinkers and our current crisis/recession thing. I didn’t find it nearly as interesting as the first part, but maybe that’s because I’ve read so much about the crisis already.

7. Riders of the Purple Sage. DNF. Didn’t read enough to speak for it. I’m still interested in reading some westerns.

8. The Greek Poets: Homer to the Present. This was nice to read just before bedtime. Sleepiness and inattention kept me from diving into the longer ones, but I bookmarked a bunch of the shorter ones that I liked. Generally, I liked the ancient stuff much more than the old and the modern. Here are a few:

Written by Anacreon, translated by Barbara Hughes Fowler:

I boxed with a harsh opponent,
but now I look up, I raise my head,
and owe great thanks that I
have escaped in every respect
the bonds of Love
Aphrodite made tough.
Let someone bring me wine in a jar
and water that bubbles.

Written by Menander, translated by Philip Vellacott:

By Athene, gentlemen, I can’t find a metaphor
To illustrate what has happened—what’s demolishing me
All in a moment. I turn things over in my mind.
A tornado, now: the time it takes to wind itself up,
Get nearer, hit you, then tear off—why, it takes an age.
Or a gale at sea; but there, you’ve breathing-space to shout
“Zeus save us!” or “Hang on to those ropes!” or to wait
For the second monster wave, and then the third, or try
To get hold of a bit of wreckage. But with me—oh, no!
One touch, one single kiss—I’d had it, I was sunk.

Written by Callimachus, translated by Frank Nisetich:

There’s something hidden here, yes, by Pan,
   by Dionysos, there’s fire under this ash.
Careful, now: don’t get too close! Often a river
   eats away at a wall, bit by bit, invisibly.
Even so, Menexenos, I fear you’ll slip
   under my skin and topple me into love.

I also liked several from Palladas. One translated by Edmund Keeley:

This is all the life there is.
It is good enough for me.
Worry won’t make another.
Or make this one last longer.
The flesh of man wastes in time.
Today there’s wine and dancing.
Today there’s flowers and women.
We might as well enjoy them.
Tomorrow—nobody knows.

Another from Palladas translated by Dudley Fitts:

Praise, of course, is best: plain speech breeds hate.
But, ah, the Attic honey
Of telling a man exactly what you think of him!

And one last one from Christophoros of Mytilene, translated by Peter Constantine:

How much better if an ox were to sit on your tongue
than for your poems to plod like oxen over fields.

9. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. This was okay. It is hard to write a great business book.

10. The Adventures of Johnny Bunko: The Last Career Guide You’ll Ever Need. I like the efficiency of this one. It’s a nice kick in the pants/attitude adjustment. It doesn’t do much more than get a basic, broad message across in 20 or so minutes, and it that sense, probably is the last career guide you’ll need.

Vocabulary and the reading diet

Justin Wehr’s recent post about vocabulary highlighted four reasons why vocabulary matters. The final reason:

Linguistic vocabulary is synonymous with thinking vocabulary.

Sort of obvious and also sort of mind-blowing. It also reminded me of a couple things:

1. Some of the funniest/best storytellers I know are funny because, in part, they employ their vocabulary really well. Maybe I just respond well to wordplay because I am a word nerd, but still, I think there’s relationship between knowing how to describe things well, and making the sometimes oddball verbal connections and metaphors, that’s essential to the funny.

2. That fourth reason also reminded me of one of my favorite Phrases To Live By:

If you write like porridge you will think like it, and the other way around.

That’s from Don Watson in his book, Death Sentences. I read it a few years ago and haven’t forgotten that little bit. It’s also an important reminder about the words (read: ideas) I consume.

I had the—honestly, pretty disturbing—realization the other day that too much of my reading lately has been a bit content-thin. Not enough for my brain to chew on. My reading diet needs more raw, organic roughage, less HFCS. So to speak. I don’t mean it in a snobby way, or to fetishize difficulty for difficulty’s sake, but I could do a lot better. And it’s not that the stuff I’m reading isn’t interesting—just that sometimes entertaining ≠ illuminating, delightful ≠ insightful in a long-lasting way. It goes beyond books, too. I’m trying to be more picky about the magazines, essays, blog posts I invest my time in as well.

Some final reminders to myself:

  • Primary sources are often awesome.
  • The classic texts stick around because they are often awesome.
  • The author’s iconic essay is often better than the subsequent book.
  • I live minutes away from a kick-ass academic library.
  • More intentional book-choosing is good. Aimless browsing for serendipitous library finds doesn’t always work.
  • I would do well to curate from like-minded people more often than I do. Ignore recommendations from smart people at my own peril.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (review: 5/5)

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

This Sotsgorodok was a bare field knee-deep in snow, and for a start you’d be digging holes, knocking in fence posts, and stringing barbed wire around them to stop yourself from running away. After that—get building.

I knew I would love this book when I came across those lines, about five pages in. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn writes about a labor-camp worker/political prisoner named Shukhov. It’s only one full day, from just before sunrise until lights-out. I love the restraint to focus on one day, one character, one setting. That aside, I think my favorite part of the book was a sort of underlying optimism. There’s plenty of bold, revolutionary exposé-type stuff about injustice, deprivation, dehumanizing treatment, etc. (It’s probably because I grew up after this devastating period that I can write it off with an “etc”…) But more interesting to me were the little glimmers of endurance and good humor in truly awful conditions.

“Call the gang.”

Gopchik ran off.

The great news was that the gruel was good today, the very best, oatmeal gruel. You don’t often get that. It’s usually magara or grits twice a day. The mushy stuff around the grains of oatmeal is filling, it’s precious.

Shukhov had fed any amount of oats to horses as a youngster and never thought that one day he’d be breaking his heart for a handful of the stuff.

“Bowls! Bowls!” came a shout from the serving hatch.

Another favorite bit is a sort of emotional shift that I found pretty remarkable. The oppression became sort of a background feature for me. With all that given, conscious sympathy sort of fades until you get about 90% finished…

Fetyukov passed down the hut, sobbing. He was bent double. His lips were smeared with blood. He must have been beaten up again for licking out bowls. He walked past the whole team without looking at anybody, not trying to hide his tears, climbed onto his bunk, and buried his face in his mattress.

You felt sorry for him, really. He wouldn’t see his time out. He didn’t know how to look after himself.

Very much a Literary Wow Moment for me. Our hero still manages feelings of pity for his fellow slave-laborer, while the reader has gotten kind of worn out. Just when you’ve gotten numb from reading about a full day of hardship, you feel the pang again because this one guy probably won’t make it. One last cool thing, also evident in the paragraph above, is that the third-person omniscient narration is peppered with asides and reactions from Shukhov himself:

The bosses were afraid the zeks would scatter and waste time in warming sheds. A zek’s day is a long one, though, and he can find time for everything. Every man entering the compound stooped to pick up a wood chip or two. Do nicely for our stove. Then quick as a flash into their shelters.

It’s a fairly short read. Totally worth it.

How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read (review: 3/5)

The title of Pierre Bayard‘s book How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read is a bit misleading. Don’t get your hopes up for any on-the-ground tactics for escaping awkward conversation. Bayard spends a couple hundred pages, illustrated mostly with stories and examples from his specialty in French literature, talking about why you shouldn’t feel awkward in the first place.
Assuming “cultivation” is a worthy goal, you have to remember that “being cultivated is a matter not of having read any book in particular, but of being able to find your bearings within books as a system, which requires you to know that they form a system and to be able to locate each element in relation to the others.”

It boils down like this: There are a lot of books out there. You can’t read them all. As soon as you begin to read, you begin to forget what you’re reading. What you actually remember is incomplete, anyway, and the way you remember it changes. Lastly, the way we actually use our incomplete, mutable memories of books varies from time to time, place to place, person to person, conversation to conversation.

In the end, Bayard says, “what we talk about is not the books themselves, but the substitute objects we create for the occasion.” This makes me think of the idea of social objects in marketing.

Hugh MacLeod: “The interesting thing about the Social Object is the not the object itself, but the conversations that happen around them.”

Compare Bayard: “The books themselves are not at stake; they have been replaced by other intermediary objects that have no content in themselves, and which are defined solely by the unstable social and psychological forces that bombard them.”

There’s also the interesting idea of ambiguity when these discussions come up:

Like words, books, in representing us, also deform what we are. In talking about books, we find ourselves exchanging not so much cultural objects as the very parts of ourselves we need to shore up our coherence during these threats to our narcissistic selves. Our feelings of shame arise because our very identity is imperiled by these exchanges, whence the imperative that the virtual space in which we stage them remain marked by ambiguity and play.

Ambiguity and play comes out because most of our conversation isn’t about books per se, it’s about situating ourselves to each other. It’s about relating. This brings to mind a Chuck Klosterman essay on why we like the music we like:

When someone asks me what kind of music I like, he is (usually) attempting to use this information to deduce things about my personality… But here’s the problem: This premise is founded on the belief that the person you’re talking with consciously knows why he appreciates those specific things or harbors those specific feelings. It’s also predicated on the principle that you know why you like certain sounds or certain images, because that self-awareness is how we establish the internal relationship between a) what someone loves and b) who someone is.

Shakespeare in the Bush. “An American anthropologist set out to study the Tiv of West Africa and was taught the true meaning of Hamlet.”:

I decided to skip the soliloquy. Even if Claudius was here thought quite right to marry his brother’s widow, there remained the poison motif, and I knew they would disapprove of fratricide. More hopefully I resumed, “That night Hamlet kept watch with the three who had seen his dead father. The dead chief again appeared, and although the others were afraid, Hamlet followed his dead father off to one side. When they were alone, Hamlet’s dead father spoke.”

“Omens can’t talk!” The old man was emphatic.

“Hamlet’s dead father wasn’t an omen. Seeing him might have been an omen, but he was not.” My audience looked as confused as I sounded. “It was Hamlet’s dead father. It was a thing we call a ‘ghost.’” I had to use the English word, for unlike many of the neighboring tribes, these people didn’t believe in the survival after death of any individuating part of the personality.

“What is a ‘ghost?’ An omen?”

“No, a ‘ghost’ is someone who is dead but who walks around and can talk, and people can hear him and see him but not touch him.”

They objected. “One can touch zombis.”

“No, no! It was not a dead body the witches had animated to sacrifice and eat. No one else made Hamlet’s dead father walk. He did it himself.”

“Dead men can’t walk,” protested my audience as one man.

I was quite willing to compromise.

“A ‘ghost’ is the dead man’s shadow.”

But again they objected. “Dead men cast no shadows.”

“They do in my country,” I snapped.

Cloze, reading, learning, life

While working on a little research paper a couple weeks ago, I came across cloze procedure. A cloze test is used to measure the difficulty of a text. In a cloze test, you take a text and replace every fifth word with a blank space. The reader, who has never seen the passage before, reads it and fills in the blanks. It’s kind of like mad libs, but the goal is to choose the correct words instead of just having fun with it.
What’s cool about cloze tests is what they can tell you about learning. By comparing how well readers complete the passage vs. how well they answer questions given a complete text, you can find where the optimal difficulty is. It turns out that there is an optimal difficulty level if you’re looking to maximize information gain. Right around a 35-40% cloze success rate is best if you’ve got an instructor available when needed, and around 50-60% if you’re learning independently.

You tend to acquire the most information with texts at those particular difficulty levels. You bring enough context and prior knowledge, but just enough to get a handle on the new stuff. What’s crazy, if I can stretch it a bit, is that the most efficient learning takes place when you’re stumbling roughly 40-60% of the time.

So it kind of woke me up to thinking, if the goal is to learn and grow, how can I pick and choose the best experiences? I don’t mean it in a snobby sense—“that is below me”—but in the sense of growth and challenge—“this is difficult and worth it.” If you’ve got perfectionism issues (like I do sometimes), sometimes you get stuck doing things you’re great at, because you’re great and being great feels good. But there’s no growth there. So the cloze thing comes into play. Try something where you know you’ll only be partially successful. See what happens.

“Reader and writer are in jail together. And the more they cooperate, the more easily they can move together through the complex masses of verbal symbols and levels of grammar that we call writing.” Arn Tibbetts, Ten Rules for Writing Readably (pdf)

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader (5/5)

I like books, and therefore tend to like books about books and the bookly experience. Enter Anne Fadiman‘s Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader. An excerpt from the first chapter from the book, “Marrying Libraries,” is available online.
Fadiman has a somewhat unique experience, growing up in a family that is pretty much insane when it comes to the written word (as evidenced by proofreading restaurant menus together, weekly quiz shows, keeping logs of book & newspaper errors, and so on), and marrying another booknut husband. All of the essays are couched in this experience. Despite her… interesting family, the undeniable pleasure of books like this is the experience of seeing myself. It’s like when you identify with a character in a movie, or when you read those silly descriptions about personality traits of your Zodiac symbol but you find yourself nodding your head, or just the simple joy of having a friend describe you accurately.

The essay that really got me was about compulsive proofreading. One of her editor’s daughters “manifested the gene at an early age by stopping at dammed-up streams during family hikes and removing all the dead leaves.” Oh, yes, that’s definitely me when I was a toddler. And I was still doing it when I went hiking on the Appalachian Trail this summer. Fadiman goes on, still talking about me in a roundabout way:

The proofreading temperament is part of a larger syndrome with several interrelated symptoms, one of which is the spotting mania. When my friend Brian Miller, also a copy editor, was a boy, he used to sit in the woods for long stretches, watching for subtle animal movements in the distance… Proofreaders tend to be good at distinguishing the anomalous figure—the rare butterfly, the precious seashell—from the ordinary ground, but unlike collectors, we wish to discard rather than hoard. Although not all of us are tidy, we savor certain cleaning tasks: removing the lint from the clothes dryer, skimming the drowned bee from the pool. My father’s most treasured possession is an enormous brass wastebasket. He is happiest when his desktop is empty and the basket is full. One of my brother’s first sentences, a psychologically brilliant piece of advice offered from his high chair one morning when my father came downstairs in a grouchy mood, was “Throw everything out, Daddy!”

Spotting, check. Dryer-lint cleaning, check. Throwing things away, check. Fadiman is singing my tune.

There’s another essay about sonnets and the struggle to write. In one passage, Fadiman looks over some of her sonnets and realizes that she “had mistaken for lyric genius what was in fact merely the genetic facility for verbal problem-solving that enabled everyone in my family to excel at crossword puzzles, anagrams, and Scrabble.” Been there!

The fifth chapter offers a disquisition on the care of books. Fadiman posits two schools of thought. There are the courtly lovers, who argue “a book’s physical self was sacrosanct, its form inseparable from its content; her duty as a lover was Platonic adoration, a noble but doomed attempt to conserve forever the state of perfect chastity in which it had left the bookseller.” And then there are carnal lovers: “a book’s words were holy, but the paper, cloth, cardboard, glue, thread, and ink that contained them were a mere vessel, and it was no sacrilege to treat them as wantonly as desire and pragmatism dictated. Hard use was a sign not of disrespect but of intimacy.” I used to be strictly courtly, but I’m loosening up a bit these days. Just a bit.

Some of my other favorites were a heavily-footnoted essay on plagiarism (quoting Robert Merton: “Anticipatory plagiarism occurs when someone steals your original idea and publishes it a hundred years before you were born.”), and another one on the joys of reading aloud. So Fadiman is really brainy, but most of the book had me laughing, too. In an extended disquisition on reading catalogs, she mentions “although it is tempting to conclude that our mailbox hatches them by spontaneous generation, I know they are really the offspring of promiscuous mailing lists, which copulate in secret and for money.” I’m sure that imagery will stick with me for a long time. It’s one of those books that leaves you smiling at the end. When I put it on my shelf, there’s that little tingle of joy knowing it was mine to take back down again. Sometime soon.