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Books & Reading Philosophy & Thought

The Gutenberg Elegies

The TLDR: We should all be reading more fiction.

I first came across this book by Sven Birkerts via a review and mentioned it a few months back. I finally finished up reading it this past weekend and it’s a winner.

Originally published in 1996, some of the references to tech are obviously a bit dated, but Birkerts makes interesting and compelling observations that are still resoundingly relevant today. I had to remind myself writing that now, over 20 years later, seems startlingly prescient, at the time must have had people calling him reactionary or melodramatic.

Interesting as well were the new forward and afterword added with the 2006 edition. Birkerts is able to reflect on the state of things since his book’s initial publication 10 years before. Of pertinent note to me was the fact that he now has children and is trying to navigate the world of parenting within the context of radical shifts in society and culture – something I too continue to struggle with.

Here’s some sections that I highlighted for their particular resonance with me:

“The primary human relations—to space, time, nature, and to other people—have been subjected to a warping pressure that is something new under the sun.” (Referring to the advent of online technology and the Internet.)

“We have been stripped not only of familiar habits and ways, but of familiar points of moral and psychological reference. Looking out at our society, we see no real leaders, no larger figures of wisdom. Not a brave new world at all, but a fearful one.”

“[The thing that George taught me…] was that knowledge was less a means to an end than a matter of self-cultivation, a way of transforming the experience of the daily. To be curious, to study, to find out – this was the path to the world. Knowledge exposed connections, imparted significance to the incidental.”

“Reading argues for a larger conception of the meaningful, and its implicit injunction (seldom heeded even by readers) is that we change our lives, that we strive to live them in the light of meaning.”

“What reading does, ultimately, is keep alive the dangerous and exhilarating idea that life is not a sequence of lived moments, but a destiny.”

“We do not learn so much from the novel itself, the lessons of its situations, as we do from having strayed free of our customary boundaries. On return, those boundaries seem more articulated, more our own; we understand their degree of permeability, and this is a vital kind of knowing.”

“The books that matter to me—and they are books of all descriptions—are those that galvanize something inside me. I read books to read myself.”

“Every true reader, then, is a writer and every true writer is a reader, and every person engaged in the project of self-awareness is the reader and writer of himself. Writer and reader: They are the recto and verso of language, which is itself the medium of our deeper awareness.”

In the humanities, knowledge is a means, yes, but it is a means less to instrumental application than to something more nebulous: understanding. […] The data—the facts, connections, the texts themselves—matter insofar as they help us to deepen and extend that narrative. In these disciplines, the process of study may be as vital to the understanding as are the materials studied.”

“Prophets and promoters have long promised that technology would set us free, creating vast quantities of leisure time; the fantasy has backfired. Instead we have swelling pockets of empty time; our lifestyles have us in harness, we are unable to move, spiritually gridlocked.”

“When we read with our eyes, we hear the words in the theater of our auditory awareness. The voice we conjure up is our own—it is the sound-print of the self.”

“I fall back on what is finally an unverifiable impression – that for all of our supposed riches, our culture feels impoverished; it lacks the kinds of animation that regular exposure to ideas and works of imagination supplies; and it is without an affirmative circulation of mental and spiritual energies.”

“Isn’t this the crux of it all? That the whole question of intellectual an artistic mattering has far less to do with the quantitative availability of ideas and expressions, and much more with their impact upon the individual and, through him, the society? That what matters is not the sound but the resonance of the sound?”

“Our lives are busy, distracted, multitracked, stressed. We may have altered our cognitive apparatus—speeding up, learning to deal with complex assaults of stimuli—in such a way that we can no longer take in the world as it was meant to be taken in. The price of retooling for the electronic millennium is a sacrifice of the incompatible aptitudes required for reading and meditative introspection. […] That we live all day among buttons and signals instead of tools and materials has not brought us appreciably closer to the interior. It has, if anything, made us less available to the kinds of self-inspection that enlightened living would demand.”

“There will be people who will never in their lives have the experience that was, until our time, the norm—who will never stand in isolated silence among trees and stones, out of shouting distance of any other person, with no communication implement, forced to confront the slow, grainy momentum of time passing.”

If you’ve read this far, kudos. I think I’ve gone well beyond a lot of people’s attention spans and/or patience at this point.

One of the ‘blurbs’ on the book cover of this edition from The New Yorker reads: “Birkerts on reading fiction is like M.F.K. Fisher on eating or Norman Maclean on fly casting. He makes you want to go do it.”

This was certainly the case with me. I have been reading a ton of non-fiction in the past year or two, under the auspices that it was ‘good for me’, often reading books that were an absolute chore to get through. Probably not so much a condemnation of their authors or the subject matter, but more that I was ‘punching above my weight’ trying to stretch my brain. Reading Birkerts on reading was so compelling that half way through his book, I abandoned it and read two works of fiction before returning to finish it just recently. This is not to say I will no longer be reading non-fiction, but Birkerts’ writing has brought me back round to the notion that I should be reading more fiction and literature – including poetry – than I have been.

Categories
Bikes Books & Reading Environment & Sustainability

The Overstory

Today’s Lunch Loop was a Library Run to return this book, The Overstory by Richard Powers. To be honest, I didn’t want to, I wanted to read it again. That doesn’t happen often. I wonder sometimes if one wants to re-read a book if it makes more sense to do it immediately or wait, and discover it again, only with a hint of familiarity, at a later time. My reading queue is currently backed up so this one will have to wait.

I can’t remember the last time a book affected me such as this one – fiction or otherwise. Powers is a master of the written word and the subject matter is of monumental weight, yet presented in a way not to be overbearing on the story. After finishing it I’m left feeling alternately exhilarated and helpless, still trying to process it all. I think the fact that this book and the discussion around it isn’t a bigger deal points to the fact that we’re still not ‘getting it’ as a species.

If this is on your to-read list, I suggest you bump it up several notches. If it wasn’t even on your radar, it should be – read it. If you’re saying, “meh, I don’t read so much anymore and the kinds of books I like to read aren’t really-“ stop. You probably need to read it the most.

Categories
Books & Reading Philosophy & Thought

A Novel of Description and Attention

I haven’t read any Karl Ove Knausgaard, but Toril Moi’s critique of his multi-volume novel, My Struggle strikes a chord with me – particularly as it relates his work to a quest for presence, and ‘attention’. A question of one’s existence and an attempt to record or validate it. Might have to add My Struggle to the ‘to read’ list, though it seems like a behemoth.

Nothing is more ordinary than existence—than being there; nothing is easier to miss. This is the heart of the project of My Struggle: all these thousands of pages are attempts to pay attention. They arise from the realization of how easy it is to miss the adventure of one’s own existence, to live one’s life without noticing, without paying attention to that one thing: that I was there. But they also arise from the realization that we will inevitably miss much of that adventure, that our only hope is to recreate the moments of existence from memory. 

My Struggle is one man’s attempt to tell us how it is to be here, now. To show us existence as an ordinary phenomenon. But it is also an attempt to record his own existence. The book tells us that he, Karl Ove Knausgaard, was here. That he existed. That he struggled to be present in the world. This is why description is the key formal device in My Struggle. Description is precisely the literary form which unites the voice of the subject (of the narrator or writer) with his or her interest in the object of the description. Uniting the utterly concrete and precise with the question of existence, the description we just looked at achieves the “inexhaustible precision” which is Knausgaard’s aesthetic ideal.

Categories
Books & Reading

Emma’s Book Blog

Shoutout to Emma and her book blog. She doesn’t like to know that I’m reading her stuff so we don’t talk about it – but she’s doing a great job. She was out in the nice weather yesterday taking book photos which she meticulously sets up an arranges. I don’t know where she gets that from…

Categories
Art, Architecture & Design Books & Reading

The Art of Rush

When I was in art class in 7th grade I used to hang out with this ‘heavy metal kid’ – not because I was into heavy metal per se, but because I was good at hand-drawn band logos. We bonded over our versions of Iron Maiden’s unique workmark. One day I mentioned I played drums and he asked if I’d heard Rush. When I replied in the negative he said I had to hear Exit..Stage Left – the drum solo was nuts. Some time later I bought the cassette and indeed, it was nuts, and I became an enthusiastic fan of the band.

I’ve been a steady fan since then, an appreciation that progressed from drumming and the music quickly into drummer Neil Peart’s lyrics and imagery. Peart’s lyrics in no small way introduced me to themes and ideas pertaining to philosophy, morality, perception, our state as beings in the world – and the importance of thinking on such things. I’ve followed their music and evolution from my young adult years, into middle age, into – whatever age I’m in now, and in many ways they have been one of only a few constants over time – their music has always been a component of my life. In addition I’ve always enjoyed their liner notes and album artwork and the fact that it was always well executed and relevant to the album contents.

Around 2008 – after working for several years as graphic designer, I moved to Atlantic Canada when I landed a gig working for Goose Lane Editions as a graphic artist and book designer. There I was fortunate enough to do the design and layout for Bob Mersereau’s book, The Top 100 Canadian Albums – which features two Rush albums, Moving Pictures at #9, and 2112 at #17 – and which also sparked an interest and appreciation for book design which I retain to this day. The only downside was having the author, Bob, tease me with tales of getting to talk to Neil on the phone for a sidebar of the book that he was responsible for, ‘The Top 10 Canadian Drummers.’

Sometime later I sent a goofy, fan-boy letter to Neil thanking him for all the music, memories and wisdom over the years – along with a few other books I’d worked on that I thought he would enjoy – expecting nothing in return. He very kindly replied with an autographed postcard out of the blue one day.

Seeing all of these intertwining interests and threads I’ve developed over the years combined into one – what no doubt is a very well done – package is something I look forward to enjoying in the future.

The Art of Rush is a 272 page coffee table book that delves into the 40 year relationship with Rush and their longtime artist and illustrator Hugh Syme. The stunning book begins with a foreword penned by Neil Peart, and contains original illustrations, paintings, photography, and the incredible stories behind each album that he has designed with the band since 1975.

rushbackstage.com