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.

Badass Librarians and Libraries

Photo by Janko Ferlič on Unsplash

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.

All Minus One: Notes

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…”

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

Using My Attention with Intention

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.