There are two free mini-libraries on my route to-from work. Today I stopped for the first time to hit one up. This one on Mill Street – hence ‘The Mill Street Free Library’ – only went up a week or two ago. It’s very well constructed, and I noticed as I opened it up and was sticking my face in it to browse how nice the freshly sawn wood smelled. My score? ‘The Odd Sea’ by Frederick Reiken. Once home I got half-way through it before bedtime. It’s very good. I have some books at home to drop here next time I’m by. Then I’ll have to check out the other free library on my route.
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.
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.
“Instead of expressing their gratitude to the rain for getting wet, people walk around with umbrellas. Nature is an old lady with few suitors these days, and those who wish to make use of her charms she rewards passionately.”-Tim Krabbé, The Rider
I ‘met’ Bill Loundy on the internet in a weird convoluted way that I won’t bother going into. I found his website and then emailed him – because that’s what I do now. No social media – I just cold-email people. We’ve exchanged a bunch of long emails. This is my new philosophy. I’ll email anyone if the mood strikes – I really don’t care if they respond or not. It’s going fantastic.
He’s a twisted paradox – he is CEO of a smartphone app company, ReadUp, that he’s currently running while traveling around the United States in a camper he calls Sputnik with no fixed address and a flip-phone, only accessing the internet predominately at public libraries. We have some similar viewpoints and values – we are probably ‘kindred sprits’ – depending on your definition of the term. I have been enthralled with his tales from the road both out of envy and a sense of discovery. His recent post, ‘Slow and Steady Wins the Race’, did not fail to deliver the goods. A few nuggets:
Slow is like patience, gratitude, maybe even love. Slow is the mindset behind so much of what makes life better: intentionality, mindfulness, focus, calm. Anything that can be done can be done just a little bit slower, and that makes it better. Slow means more time. If you can drink a coffee in eight minutes instead of three, that’s five bonus coffee-drinking minutes. When time extends, awareness extends.
What I’m learning is that attention is the mack-daddy of all skills because it’s the path to all other skills. And the best part is that it only has two ingredients: time and focus.
Universally, I think that people are careless with their attention. They give it away without thinking – to other people and increasingly, tragically, to corporations and tech gadgets. To reclaim your attention for yourself is to reclaim yourself for yourself. Think about that.
That last one – bam.
Some of the best parts of Bill’s posts revolve around people he meets on the road.
I instantly hit it off with J. Born and raised on the Keweenaw Peninsula, he’s a 72-year-old with drifter vibes, but he never really drifted, geographically at least. He’s a bonafide free-thinker, who described himself, first and foremost, as a draft-dodger. He was a high school physics and English teacher (of course) who hated high school himself (also of course) but ended up finding his way to college (you get the point). I latch onto the fact that he doesn’t have a cell phone; to him, this fact is barely worth note. He looks like Jack Nicholson, but balder, with a pristine dome of shiny nothingness on the top of his head and long, grey hair cascading down the sides. He wears a Hawaiian shirt and bucket hat.
Bill says on his About page, that one of his two life-long goals is to write a novel. I look forward to that, but in the meantime his non-fiction blog posts are both compelling and fascinating. Check ’em out.
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.
I’ve caught some interesting stuff about libraries and librarians lately.
The first was an episode of Now or Never on CBC Radio, called Beyond the shelves: Discovering the magic in public libraries. Primarily about the opening of the new Calgary Library, the episode went on to talk about how today’s libraries are changing – becoming the new ‘centre’ of all types of services for communities. Personally, I really like the notion of a library as a ‘community hub’ – I think this type of thinking – and congregating could go a long way towards fixing a lot of what’s broken with society today. Check out the episode for the full meal deal.
Second, a recent episode of the 99% Invisible podcast called Weeding is Fundamental (har har) discusses the process – yes there is one – and it even has an acronym, MUSTY – by which libraries decide when to retire books. It includes discussion of a landmark dispute (and subsequent Librarian show-down) in San Francisco triggered by, of all things, an earthquake in 1989. Fascinating stuff. The capper of the episode is a bit of a ‘bonus feature’ by The Kitchen Sisters about the The Packhorse Librarians of Eastern Kentucky. Amazing stuff. Even if you’re podcast -averse – the link above has an article with most of the info from the episode and some cool related links interspersed.
There’s been quite a bit of ugliness down in the States the past few years, particularly on college campuses with ‘deplatforming’ and ‘disinviting’ of speakers, speakers and professors being shouted down, censured or even fired, mostly over free speech issues. A disturbing trend for sure.
Professor Jonathan Haidt and others started an organization called the Heterodox Academy to address this.
“Heterodox Academy is a non-profit alliance of professors from across the political spectrum who agree with Mill that “he who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that.” We advocate for increased viewpoint diversity in higher education. We offer tools and ideas that help universities create the vibrant cultures of debate that Mill thought were essential for the pursuit of truth.”–HeterodoxAcademy.org
I mentioned in a previous post that one of the projects they’d undertaken was to edit the chapter from John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty to make it more accessible to high school and university-aged students as well as a tool for teachers. In my opinion, they did a fantastic job. I wanted to share a few chunks of Mill’s that seem particularly relevant to the issues facing universities.
“The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”
“Yet it is as evident in itself, as any amount of argument can make it, that ages are no more infallible than individuals; every age having held many opinions which subsequent ages have deemed not only false but absurd; and it is as certain that many opinions, now general, will be rejected by future ages, as it is that many, once general, are rejected by the present.”
“However unwillingly a person who has a strong opinion may admit the possibility that his opinion may be false, he ought to be moved by the consideration that however true it may be, if it is not fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth.”
“But there is a commoner case…when the conflicting doctrines, instead of being one true and the other false, share the truth between them; and the non-conforming opinion is needed to supply the remainder of the truth, of which the received doctrine embodies only a part. Popular opinions, on subjects not palpable to sense, are often true, but seldom or never the whole truth.”
“Not the violent conflict between parts of the truth, but the quiet suppression of half of it, is the formidable evil; there is always hope when people are forced to listen to both sides…”
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
About a year ago, after a lot of consideration, I decided that I was through with social media. I’d gone back and forth on the whys, the hows, the reasoning and finally decided to pull the plug on it all. I was an early adopter and for awhile a staunch advocate, but I’d reconsidered. Long story short – I don’t regret it.
When I was first experiencing the rumblings of the idea that I might want out of social media – and to spend less time online/looking at screens – I remember at the time reading The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr. The one thing from it that has stuck with me was his reporting of the fact that neuroscientists had actually observed physical changes happening to the brain, based on the way people were reading and consuming content on the Internet. It would only seem obvious that people’s attention spans were shortening, but experiments and data showed that the actual physical molecular structure of people’s brains was changing making it harder for them to concentrate for longer periods of time on one thing and also making it more difficult for people to read longer-form literature. The Internet was rewiring people’s brains, literally. This kinda freaked me out.
A few years later when I finally decided to kick my social media and decrease my screen time. I also made it a point to get back to reading more long-form writing – articles, essays and books – and to revamp my reading ‘practice’, doing some things differently as well as things I’d never done before like taking notes and marking up physical books with notes and highlights. Most people developed some of these habits in university – but I never went, so it was a new endeavor for me.
I’d noticed my own tendency to read only shorter pieces, avoidance of long articles, and deteriorating attention span. Though I’ve been attempting to rehabilitate my reading skills, I’ll ironically point out that old habits die hard. In the case of the article I discuss below, I read it 3 times. The first two I would resort to skimming, looking for hooks and trying to get to the end so I could get on to ‘next thing’. Part of my efforts have been working on stopping, slowing down, and staying with the writing. Too often these days we are in a hurry to ‘get elsewhere’ either virtually or physically and don’t pay attention to the one thing we are actually doing.
With no social media any longer to feed me articles and book ideas, I set out and stocked my Feedly app with sources of the kind of stuff I wanted to read. I began to regularly check in and read more and for articles of longer length – this step is key, I would bookmark to read later – when I could actually give full attention to the text vs. just scanning quickly as had become my standard practice for ‘Internet reading’.
An example of an outstanding result from my new ‘practice’ is this article recently in The Paris Review by Mairead Small Staid – it’s a review of The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age written in 1994 by Sven Birkerts . A superbly written review, so much of it resonates with me that I have to restrain myself from just copy and pasting the whole thing here. Ms. Staid’s writing is fantastic – go read it for yourself – it’s well worth it, but I will share a few teasers here that stuck with me.
The book is a book about reading that has Birkerts wondering – at the dawn of the Internet – how we will read in the future and if reading will continue to constitute the experience that it did prior. I haven’t read the book yet, but have moved it to the top of my to-read list based on Ms. Staid’s article.
“Literature holds meaning not as a content that can be abstracted and summarized, but as experience, … It is a participatory arena. Through the process of reading we slip out of our customary time orientation, marked by distractedness and surficiality, into the realm of duration.”Sven Birkerts
I found it interesting that Ms. Staid mentions her age and relevant points on the ‘technological timeline’ of her life. Though older than her, I can also remember the ‘pre-Internet’ days and my relationship to books and reading then. It is even easier when looking through this lens to see how my habits and attitudes have changed over time and with the growth of the Internet and related technologies.
Though we’ve experienced some of the same milestones on the ‘technology timeline,’ albeit at different points, Ms. Staid echoes some thoughts I’ve had but never been able to elucidate quite as effectively:
“Loneliness is what the internet and social media claim to alleviate, though they often have the opposite effect. Communion can be hard to find, not because we aren’t occupying the same physical space but because we aren’t occupying the same mental plane: we don’t read the same news; we don’t even revel in the same memes. Our phones and computers deliver unto each of us a personalized—or rather, algorithm-realized—distillation of headlines, anecdotes, jokes, and photographs. Even the ads we scroll past are not the same as our neighbor’s: a pair of boots has followed me from site to site for weeks. We call this endless, immaterial material a feed, though there’s little sustenance to be found.”Mairead Small Staid
I don’t think I’ve read anything to date that more perfectly summed up my final, turning-point experience with social media. So many times I remember checking in with my feed only to say to myself, there is nothing here worthwhile. Now, by using the Internet and apps with more intention, I’m finding there’s much more ‘sustenance in my feed,’ and I am spending less time online, reading far more, and getting a lot more out of it.
“I no longer have a Facebook account, and I find myself spending less and less time online. As adulthood settles on me—no passing fad, it turns out, but a chronic condition—I’m increasingly drawn back to the deeply engaged reading of my childhood. The books have changed, and my absorption is not always as total as it once was, but I can still find, slipped like a note between the pages, what Birkerts calls the “time of the self… deep time, duration time, time that is essentially characterized by our obliviousness to it.” The gift of reading, the gift of any encounter with art, is that this time spent doesn’t leave me when I lift my eyes from the book in my lap: it lingers, for a minute or a day. “[S]omething more than definitional slackness allows me to tell a friend that I’m reading The Good Soldier as we walk down the street together,” Birkerts writes. “In some ways I am reading the novel as I walk, or nap, or drive to the store for milk.”Mairead Small Staid
I too have returned to physical books and rediscovered the joy and experience to be found therein. Initially I’d also read e-books, but found I was still to tempted to check email, or be distracted by notifications, so have now eschewed even those, preferring good old-fashioned paper and ink that I can feel, mark up and make my own. A real book is much easier to literally dive into and get lost within.