My Life In Middlemarch

middlemarch

Rebecca Mead has written a book like no other I’ve come across. My Life In Middlemarch is an irresistibly creative story about how her favorite book, George Eliot’s Middlemarch, changed her and perhaps more importantly, changed as she read and re-read it over the years.

Commenting on how books were a part of her identity, Mead writes:

Books gave us a way to shape ourselves—to form our thoughts and to signal to each other who we were and who we wanted to be. … Though I would not have been able to say so at the time, I sought to identify myself with the kind of intelligence I found in Middlemarch—with its range, its wit, its seriousness, its erudition, its deep feeling.

On her fascination with Middlemarch, looking back she writes:

I admired the little I knew of George Eliot’s life: her daunting, self-willed transformation from provincial girlhood to metropolitan preeminence, a good story to hear if one is an anxiously ambitious girl from a backwater town. I was intrigued by her adoption of a masculine pseudonym, by which she continued to be known throughout her life as a novelist, even after her identity was revealed early in her fiction-writing career. I knew that some important critics considered Middlemarch to be the greatest novel in the English language, and I wanted to be among those who understood why. I loved Middlemarch, and I loved being the kind of person who loved it. It gratified my aspirations to maturity and learnedness. To have read it, and to have appreciated it, seemed a step on the road to being one of the grown-ups for who it was written.

Commenting on the value of re-reading, Mead says:

Middlemarch was one book I have never stopped reading, despite all the distractions of a busy working life. I went back to it as a student … I read it again in my twenties … In my thirties, trying to establish myself as a serious writer, I was struck with new, poignant force by the story of Lydgate—the ambitious would-be reformer who becomes, instead, a society doctor known for a treatise on gout, “a disease which has a good deal of wealth on its side,” in Eliot’s pointed observation. The novel opened up to me further every time I went back to it and by my early forties it had come to have yet another resonance. In a far from singular crisis, I had recently become consumed by a sense of doors closing behind me, alternative lives unlived: work I might have done, places I might have moved to, men I might have married, children I might have borne. In this light, a book that had once seemed to be all about the hopes and desires of youth now seemed to cover a melancholy dissection of the resignations that attend middle age, the paths untrodden and the choices unmade.

Being a journalist for years had shaped Mead. Armed with a better sense of nuance and questions to ask, she once again took up the cause to look at something “familiar from an unfamiliar angle,” wondering what she would find.

Cloaked in this quasi-objective spirit of inquiry was another set of questions, these ones more personal, and pressing, and secret. What would happen if I stopped to consider how Middlemarch has shaped my understanding of my own life? Why did the novel still feel so urgent, after all these years? and what could it give me now, as I paused here in the middle of things and surveyed where I had come from, and then thought about where I was, and wondered where I might go next?

The book is full of interesting stories. Like the one on how Charles Dickens suspected that George Eliot was, in fact, a man. When Eliot’s first work of fiction, Scenes of Clerical Life, was published, Dickens wrote to the publisher, noting, “If they originated with no woman, I believe that no man ever before had the art of making himself, mentally, so like a woman since the world began.” A short time after Adam Bede, her first book, was published her identity was revealed. Dickens commented, “‘Adam Bede’ has taken its place among the actual experiences and endurances of my life.”

Commenting on the value of reading, Mead writes:

Reading is sometimes thought of as a form of escapism, and it’s a common turn of phrase to speak of getting lost in a book. But a book can also be where one finds oneself; and when a reader is grasped and held by a book, reading does not feel like an escape from life so much as it feels like an urgent, crucial dimension of life itself. There are books that seem to comprehend us just as much as we understand them, or even more. There are books that grow with the reader as the reader grows, like a graft to a tree. This kind of book becomes part of our own experience, and part of our own endurance. It might lead us back to the library in midlife, looking for something that eluded us before.

My Life In Middlemarch is part memoir, part mini-biography of the great Victorian writer George Eliot, who was born Mary Ann Evans, and part homage to great literature.

Stephen King On Twilight, 50 Shades of Grey, Lovecraft & More

Stephen King speaks on a number of topics and takes questions from students, faculty and others in a “Master’s Class” at UMass Lowell.

I sometimes think that people don’t challenge themselves very hard to read stuff that’s a little bit more textured or nuanced. … And then sometimes I think that the people (who) are defenders of what they call literature, feel like a book has to be a ignored if it reaches more than 750 readers.

Mark Twain on New Year’s Resolutions

Mark Twain’s Letter to Virginia City Territorial Enterprise, Jan. 1863

Now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual. Yesterday, everybody smoked his last cigar, took his last drink, and swore his last oath. Today, we are a pious and exemplary community. Thirty days from now, we shall have cast our reformation to the winds and gone to cutting our ancient shortcomings considerably shorter than ever. We shall also reflect pleasantly upon how we did the same old thing last year about this time. However, go in, community. New Year’s is a harmless annual institution, of no particular use to anybody save as a scapegoat for promiscuous drunks, and friendly calls, and humbug resolutions, and we wish you to enjoy it with a looseness suited to the greatness of the occasion.

Antigone

antigone

I recently picked up Sophocles’s Antigone. Sophocles wrote more than 100 plays in his lifetime but only seven complete tragedies remain.

In Antigone, Polynices, son of Oedipus, went to war with his brother, Eteocles, the ruler of Thebes, for control of the city. These two kill each other and their uncle, Creon, assumes control of the city.

Creon regards Polynices as a traitor. Accordingly, he denies his body a decent burial. He warns that anyone ignoring this edict shall be put to death.

Creon’s position is understandable. He’s trying to establish order, punish a traitor, and gain political authority. Yet he proceeds in ignorance, in the sense that he does not see the possible outcomes that may arise from his edict.

Antigone is the sister of Polynices and Eteocles. She’s clearly upset with this and defies Creon’s order to give her brother a proper burial. Antigone is convinced that Creon is wrong. To her he’s defying the authority of the gods and overstepping.

Antigone is arrested and confesses. Creon orders her death by sealing her in a cave, entombed alive.

Tiresias, the blind prophet, warns Creon. “Think, thou dost walk on fortune’s razor-edge.” He predicts that if Creon doesn’t change his mind and permit the burial of Polynices, the gods will curse Thebes. Disaster, of course, will naturally follow.

Creon recognizes the error of his ways and realizes he made a mistake. He orders Antigone to be freed and Polynices a proper burial.

Alas, this wouldn’t quite be a tragedy if things worked out so neatly.

Antigone has already hung herself. Her fiancé, who also happens to be Creon’s son, blames his father for her death. He tries to kill his father but accidentally ends up killing himself. Creon’s wife, Eurydice, hears of her son’s death and commits suicide.

So what exactly can we learn from all of this?

Creon is reluctant to change from the status quo. While he may not have foreseen Antigone’s reaction or its consequences as warned by the prophet, he refuses, until it is too late, to change his mind. He’s powerful. He’s the ruler. He needs to be seen as decisive and he likely views changing his mind as a loss of status rather than a gain of compassion. Yet it is more complicated than this.

“Should Creon change his stance and lose authority and influence,” he would have committed an error of commission, weighted more heavily, ceteris paribus, than doing nothing, and having bad things happen,” explain Devjani Roy and Richard Zeckhauser in their paper Ignorance: Lessons from the Laboratory of Literature.

If you’re curious, I’d recommend you give Antigone a read. It’s short, only 50 pages or so.

Two types of ignorance

ignorance

This article builds on Decisions Under Uncertainty. In fact, consider this a continuation.

Think of how we make decisions in organizations — we often do what standard decision theory would ask of us.

We create a powerpoint that identifies the future desired state, identify what might happen, attach weighted probabilities to said outcomes, and make a choice. Perfectly rational. Right?

One of the problems with this approach is the risk charts and matrices that accompany this analysis. In my experience these charts are rarely discussed in detail and become more about checking the ‘I thought about risk’ box than anything else. We conveniently pin things into categories of low, medium, or high risk with a corresponding “impact” scale.

What gets most of the attention is high-risk, high-impact. Perhaps deservedly so. But you have to ask yourself how did we arrive at these arbitrary scales? Is one person’s look at risk the same as someone else’s? Are there hidden incentives to nudge risk one way or another? What biases come into play?

Often we can’t even identify everything. Rarely do people ever go back and look at what happened and how accurate those “risk” tables were. From the ones I’ve seen, the “low risk” stuff happens a lot more often than people imagined. And a lot of things happen that never even made the chart in the first place.

On the occasion when people do go back, and I’ve seen this firsthand, hindsight bias creeps in. “Oh, we discussed that but it didn’t make it in the document. But we knew about it.” Yes, of course you did.

Ignorant and unknowing.

We’re largely ignorant, that is, we operate in a state of the world where some possible outcomes are unknown. However, we’ve prepared for a world where outcomes and probabilities can be estimated. There is a mis-match between our training and reality. You can’t even hope to accurately estimate probabilities if the range of outcomes is unknown.

There are two types of ignorance.

The first category is when we do not know we are ignorant. This is primary ignorance. The second category is when we recognize our ignorance. This is called recognized ignorance.

Empty Suits
Empty Suits and Fragilistas are almost always ignorant and unknowing.

In Antifragile, Nassim Taleb writes:

[The Empty Suit/Fragilista] defaults to thinking that what he doesn’t see is not there, or what he does not understand does not exist. At the core, he tends to mistake the unknown for the nonexistent.

That my friends is primary ignorance. And it’s not limited to empty suits and fragilistas. Consider Anna Karenina:

Primary ignorance ruins the life of one of fiction’s most famous characters, Anna Karenina. Readers of Anna Karenina (1877/2004) know that, in this novel, a train bookends bad news. Anna alights from one train as the novel begins and throws herself under another one as it ends. As she enters the glittering world of pre-Revolutionary Saint Petersburg, Anna catches the eye of the aristocratic bachelor Count Vronsky and quickly falls under his spell. But there is a problem: she is married to the rising politician Karenin, the two have a son Seryozha, and society will not take kindly to the conspicuous adultery of a prominent citizen. Indulging in an extra-marital affair, especially when one’s husband is a respected member of society, promotes the likelihood of unpleasant (events). But her passion for Vronsky dulls Anna’s capacities for self-awareness. She becomes pregnant out of wedlock, a disastrous condition for a woman in nineteenth-century Russia. Anna consistently displays an unfortunate propensity to take action without recognizing that a terrible consequential outcome is possible. That is, she operates in primary ignorance.

Anna demonstrates all the characteristics of primary ignorance. She fails to consider all the possible scenarios that will occur from her impulsive decision making. She risks her marriage with Karenin, a kind if undemonstrative husband, who is willing to forgive and even offers to raise her illegitimate child as his own. Leaving Seryozha with Karenin, she and Vronsky escape to Italy and then to his Russian country estate. Ultimately, she finds that while Vronsky continues to be accepted socially, living his life exactly as he pleases, the door of society slams shut in her face. No one will associate with her and she is insulted as an adulterer wherever she goes. It is only when she is completely isolated socially and cut off from her beloved son that Anna recognizes the dangers of primary ignorance: she risked her family and her reputation for too little. … She realizes she was ignorant of the possible outcomes that jumping headlong into an illicit relationship would bring.

Ignorance, primary or recognized, is only important if the expected consequences are significant. Otherwise we can be ignorant without consequence.

While human irrationality factors into all decisions, it hits us most when we are unknowingly ignorant. Rational decision making becomes harder as we move along the continuum: outcomes are known —> risk —> uncertainty/ignorance.

If we can not consider all possible outcomes, preventing failure becomes nearly impossible. Further complicating matters, situations of ignorance often take years to play out. Joy and Zeckhauser write:

One could argue … that a rational decision maker should always consider the possibility of ignorance, thus ruling out primary ignorance. But that is a level of rationality that very few achieve.

If we could do this we’d always be in the space of recognized ignorance, better, at least, than primary ignorance.

Literature

“Fortunately,” write Joy and Zeckhauser, “there is a group of highly perceptive chroniclers of human decision-making who observe individuals and follow their paths, often over years or decades. They are the individuals who write fiction: plays, novels, and short stories describing imagined events and people (or fictional characters.)”

Joy and Zeckhouser argue these works have “deep insights” into the way we approach decisions, “both great and small.”

In the Poetics, a classical treatise on the principles of literary theory, Aristotle argues that art imitates life. We refer here to Aristotle’s ideas of mimesis, or imitation. Aristotle claims one of art’s functions is the representation of reality. “Art” here includes creative products of the human imagination and, therefore, any work of fiction. Indeed, a crevice, not a canyon, separates faction and fiction.

For centuries, authors have attempted to depict situations of ignorance. In Greek literature, Sophocle’s King Oedipus and Creon, and Homer’s Odysseus all seek forecasting skills of the blind prophet Tiresias who is doomed by Zeus to “speak the truth no man may believe.”

For its status as one of literature’s most enduring love stories, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice begins rather unpromisingly: the hero and the heroine cannot stand each another. The arrogant Mr. Darcy claims Elizabeth Bennet is “not handsome enough to tempt me”; Elizabeth offers the equally withering riposte that she “may safely promise … never to dance with him.” Were we to encounter them after these early skirmishes, we (like Elizabeth and Darcy themselves) would be ignorant of the possibility of an ultimate romance.

In Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1856/2004), Charles Bovary is a stolid rural doctor who is ignorant of the true character of the woman he is marrying. Dazzled by her youth and beauty, he ends up with an adulterous wife who plunges him into debt. His wife Emma, the titular “Madame Bovary,” is equally ignorant of the true character of her husband. Her head filled with romantic fantasies, she yearns for a sophisticated partner and the glamor of city life, but finds herself trapped in a somnolent marriage with a rustic man.

K., the land surveyor and protagonist of Franz Kafka’s The Castle, attempts, repeatedly and unsuccessfully, to gain access to the mysterious authorities of a castle but is frustrated by an authoritarian bureaucracy and by ambiguous responses that defy rational interpretation. He begins and ends the novel (as does the reader) in ignorance.

Joy and Zeckhouser use stories to study ignorance, which makes sense.

Stories offer “simulations of the social world,” according to Psychologists Raymond Mar and Keith Oatley, through abstraction, simplification, and compression. Stories afford us a kind of flight simulator. We can test run new things and observe and learn, with little economic or social cost. Joy and Zeckhouser believe “that characters in great works of literature reproduce the behavioral propensities of real-life individuals.”

While we’ll likely never uncover situations as fascinating as we find in stories, this doesn’t mean they are not a useful tool for learning about choice and consequence.

“In a sense,” Joy and Zeckhauser write, “this is why great literature will never get dated: these stories observe the details of human behavior, and present such behavior awash with all the anguish and the splendor that is the lot of the human predicament.

As Steven Pinker notes in How The Mind Works:

Characters in a fictitious world do exactly what our intelligence allows us to do in the real world. We watch what happens to them and mentally take notes on the outcomes of the strategies and tactics they use in pursuing their goals.

If we assume we live in a world where we are, to some extent, ignorant then the best course is “thoughtful action or prudent information gathering.” Yet, when you look at the stories, “we frequently act in ways that violate such advice.”

So reading fiction can help us adapt and deal with the world of uncertainty.

Read part three of this series: Avoiding Ignorance.

References: Ignorance: Lessons from the Laboratory of Literature (Joy and Zeckhauser).

Zibaldone

zibaldone_cover

I picked up a copy of the first complete English edition of Giacomo Leopardi’s Zibaldone.

Giacomo Leopardi is the most radical and channelling of nineteenth-century poets and thinkers, yet the recognition of his genius outside his native Italy has been sporadic, at times enthusiastic and engaged, at others distracted.

Herman Melville turned him into a character in Clarel (a skeptic “stoned by Grief”). Nietzsche, “in the second of his Unfashionable Observations,” was describing Leopardi as the model of the modern philologist and the greatest prose writer of the century.”

According to editor Franco D’Intino, one of the reasons around Leopardi’s “waxing and waning” reputation was because he “lived and wrote in that shadow-land that lies between the impetuous fire-bust of the first Romantic generation and the generation that came after him, that of the founders of the modern lyric. The shadowland was called, in post-Napoleonic Italy, the Restoration, and age of discontent, frustration,melancholy, eyes cast toward the past or the future, but a future beyond this world.”

Zibaldone

He became a philosopher without knowing Kant, he became a poet without knowing Goethe—except for what he could learn of either from mme de Staël, his poor Baedeker guide to modern philosophy—because in himself he was able to find the strength to reach beyond the confines of his age, and, with comparable acuity, to see forward and backward in time.

Nature and the ancients were his salvation and his true teachers. … [H]is ability to go beyond disciplinary boundaries and codified languages, his extreme intellectual flexibility and freedom, open up new roads before him, along which, for example, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Benjamin will travel, and many post-structuralist thinkers after them.

Far from a book this is more like a monstrously wonderful manuscript, which for a long time no one knew anything about. It only came to light posthumously, more than half a century after Leopardi passed. “The book,” writes I’Dintino, “was, with few exceptions, confined to specialists in Italian literature, who had no interest in the ways in which Leopardi had reflected on man, society, and nature, or in the implacable originality with which he had set about interrogating all the fields of knowledge.”

At over two thousand pages, the odds of me reading it anytime soon are pretty low. Recently, however, I’ve taken to pulling it off the shelf, selecting a random page, and reading a few passages.

vedifoto

To give you a quick idea of the sort of thinker and writer Leopardi was, I flipped to a random page and found this passage on boredom.

Let us observe the animals. They often do very little or stay in their lairs, etc. etc. etc., without doing anything. Man does much more. The activity of the most inert man surpasses that of the most active animal (whether internal or external activity). And yet animals don’t know what boredom is, nor do they desire greater activity, etc. Man is bored and feels his nothingness at every moment. But he does and thinks things that are not intended by nature. With animals it’s the opposite.

Or this on imitating.

The difficulty of imitating: easier to do more than the thing itself: how difficult it is to be equal: how rare prefect equality is in nature: hence the wonder born of imitation and the delight born of wonder.

And one more, on the effectiveness of expressions.

The effectiveness of expressions is very often the same as their novelty. It frequently happens that the much-used expression is more robust, truer, more energetic, and yet its being much used enervates it and takes away its strength.

I’ve found something awesome on nearly every page I’ve looked at.

Leopardi’s “comments about religion, philosophy, language,
history, anthropology, 
astronomy, literature, poetry, and love
are unprecedented in their brilliance and suggestiveness.”

I highly recommend you pick up a copy. If the book is too much for you, it makes great gift for a smarter friend.

The Great Books

The Great Books_opt

We all want to read more.

If reading older books is exponentially more beneficial for acquiring knowledge than reading newer things, then reading the great books is a good place to start.

These books build the foundation.

One of the best places to find a list of the great books is St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland.

The interdisciplinary curriculum focuses on the foundational works of philosophy, literature, history, political science, theology, economics, music, mathematics, and the laboratory sciences.

Sounds like the type of education I didn’t get in school and I’m making up for now. At St. John’s, all classes are conducted seminar-style.

By engaging in these small seminar classes, students learn skills of critical analysis and cooperative inquiry. Students also refine their ability to think, write, and speak across all disciplines by writing substantial annual essays and defending them in oral examinations.

Many consider the curriculum an outrage. I wish it were more common.

In the New Yorker, former alum Salvatore Scibona writes, “The college’s curriculum was an outrage. No electives. Not a single book in the seminar list by a living author.” “However,” he continued,

no tests. No grades, unless you asked to see them. No textbooks—I was confused. In place of an astronomy manual, you would read Copernicus. No books about Aristotle, just Aristotle. Like, you would read book-books. The Great Books, so called, though I had never heard of most of them. It was akin to taking holy orders, but the school—St. John’s College—had been secular for three hundred years. In place of praying, you read.

The Great Books

I’m going to post the list in the order students encounter them: freshman, sophomore, junior and senior.

The first year is devoted to Greek authors and their pioneering understanding of the liberal arts; the second year contains books from the Roman, medieval, and Renaissance periods; the third year has books of the 17th and 18th centuries, most of which were written in modern languages; the fourth year brings the reading into the 19th and 20th centuries.

FRESHMAN YEAR

HOMER: Iliad, Odyssey

AESCHYLUS: Agamemnon, Libation Bearers, EumenidesPrometheus Bound

SOPHOCLES: Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus, Antigone, Philoctetes, Ajax

THUCYDIDES: Peloponnesian War

EURIPIDES: Hippolytus, Bacchae

HERODOTUS: Histories

ARISTOPHANES: Clouds

PLATO: Meno, Gorgias, Republic, Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Symposium, Parmenides, Theaetetus, Sophist, Timaeus, Phaedrus

ARISTOTLE: Physics, Metaphysics, Nicomachean Ethics, Poetics, Politics, On Generation and Corruption, Parts of Animals, Generation of Animals

EUCLID: Elements

LUCRETIUS: On the Nature of Things

PLUTARCH: Lycurgus, Solon

NICOMACHUS: Arithmetic

LAVOISIER: Elements of Chemistry

HARVEY: Motion of the Heart and Blood

SOPHOMORE YEAR

HEBREW BIBLE

THE BIBLE: New Testament

ARISTOTLE: De Anima, On Interpretation, Prior Analytics, Categories

APOLLONIUS: Conics

VIRGIL: Aeneid

PLUTARCH: “Caesar,” “Cato the Younger,” “Antony,” “Brutus

EPICTETUS: Discourses, Manual

TACITUS: Annals

PTOLEMY: Almagest

PLOTINUS: The Enneads

AUGUSTINE: Confessions

MAIMONIDES: Guide for the Perplexed

ST. ANSELM: Proslogium

AQUINAS: Summa Theologica

DANTE: Divine Comedy

CHAUCER: Canterbury Tales

MACHIAVELLI: The Prince, Discourses

KEPLER: Epitome IV

RABELAIS: Gargantua and Pantagruel

PALESTRINA: Missa Papae Marcelli

MONTAIGNE: Essays

VIETE: Introduction to the Analytical Art

BACON: Novum Organum

SHAKESPEARE: Richard II, Henry IV, The Tempest, As You Like It, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, King Lear, and Sonnets

DESCARTES: Geometry, Discourse on Method

PASCAL: Generation of Conic Sections

BACH: St. Matthew Passion, Inventions

HAYDN: Quartets

MOZART: Operas

BEETHOVEN: Third Symphony

SCHUBERT: Songs

MONTEVERDI: L’Orfeo

STRAVINSKY: Symphony of Psalms

JUNIOR YEAR

CERVANTES: Don Quixote

GALILEO: Two New Sciences

HOBBES: Leviathan

DESCARTES: Meditations, Rules for the Direction of the Mind

MILTON: Paradise Lost

LA ROCHEFOUCAULD: Maximes

LA FONTAINE: Fables

PASCAL: Pensees

HUYGENS: Treatise on Light, On the Movement of Bodies by Impact

ELIOT: Middlemarch

SPINOZA: Theological-Political Treatise

LOCKE: Second Treatise of Government

RACINE: Phaedre

NEWTON: Principia Mathematica

KEPLER: Epitome IV

LEIBNIZ: Monadology, Discourse on Metaphysics, Essay On Dynamics, Philosophical Essays, Principles of Nature and Grace

SWIFT: Gulliver’s Travels

HUME: Treatise of Human Nature

ROUSSEAU: Social Contract, The Origin of Inequality

MOLIERE: Le Misanthrope

ADAM SMITH: Wealth of Nations

KANT: Critique of Pure Reason, Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals

MOZART: Don Giovanni

JANE AUSTEN: Pride and Prejudice

DEDEKIND: “Essay on the Theory of Numbers
Articles of Confederation,” “Declaration of Independence,” “Constitution of the United States of America

HAMILTON, JAY AND MADISON: The Federalist

TWAIN: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

WORDSWORTH: The Two Part Prelude of 1799

SENIOR YEAR

GOETHE: Faust

DARWIN: Origin of Species

HEGEL: Phenomenology of Mind, “Logic” (from the Encyclopedia)

LOBACHEVSKY: Theory of Parallels

TOCQUEVILLE: Democracy in America

KIERKEGAARD: Philosophical Fragments, Fear and Trembling

WAGNER: Tristan and Isolde

MARX: Capital, Political and Economic Manuscripts of 1844, The German Ideology

DOSTOEVSKI: Brothers Karamazov

TOLSTOY: War and Peace

MELVILLE: Benito Cereno

WILLIAM JAMES; Psychology, Briefer Course

NIETZSCHE: Beyond Good and Evil

FREUD: Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis

DUBOIS: The Souls of Black Folk

HUSSERL: Crisis of the European Sciences

HEIDEGGER: Basic Writings

EINSTEIN: Selected papers

CONRAD: Heart of Darkness

FAULKNER: Go Down Moses

FLAUBERT: Un Coeur Simple

WOOLF: Mrs. Dalloway

So here’s the deal. Pick a few books and start pecking away.

Neil Gaiman on The Importance of Reading, Libraries, and Imagination

Neil Gaiman

If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales.
If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.Albert Einstein

Neil Gaiman, who brought us one of the best commencement speeches ever, chimes in on with a lecture explaining why using our imaginations is an obligation for all citizens.

The correlation between illiteracy and prison growth.

I was once in New York, and I listened to a talk about the building of private prisons – a huge growth industry in America. The prison industry needs to plan its future growth – how many cells are they going to need? How many prisoners are there going to be, 15 years from now? And they found they could predict it very easily, using a pretty simple algorithm, based on asking what percentage of 10 and 11-year-olds couldn’t read. And certainly couldn’t read for pleasure.

It’s not one to one: you can’t say that a literate society has no criminality. But there are very real correlations.

Literacy is more important now then ever.

Literacy is more important than ever it was, in this world of text and email, a world of written information. We need to read and write, we need global citizens who can read comfortably, comprehend what they are reading, understand nuance, and make themselves understood.

On fiction as a gateway drug.

Fiction has two uses. Firstly, it’s a gateway drug to reading. The drive to know what happens next, to want to turn the page, the need to keep going, even if it’s hard, because someone’s in trouble and you have to know how it’s all going to end … that’s a very real drive. And it forces you to learn new words, to think new thoughts, to keep going. To discover that reading per se is pleasurable. Once you learn that, you’re on the road to reading everything. And reading is key.

[W]ords are more important than they ever were: we navigate the world with words, and as the world slips onto the web, we need to follow, to communicate and to comprehend what we are reading. People who cannot understand each other cannot exchange ideas, cannot communicate, and translation programs only go so far.

The simplest way to make sure that we raise literate children is to teach them to read, and to show them that reading is a pleasurable activity. And that means, at its simplest, finding books that they enjoy, giving them access to those books, and letting them read them.

And the second thing fiction does is to build empathy. … Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals.

This reminds me of Keith Oatley, who when explaining the role of fiction in our lives employed the metaphor of a flight simulator. A flight simulator allows pilots-in-training to safely and quickly learn how to deal with all sorts of problems that might happen in the air. Fiction, Oatley argues, “allows us to experience emotions in a safe place, training us to understand ourselves and others.”

How well-meaning adults can kill a love of reading.

Well-meaning adults can easily destroy a child’s love of reading: stop them reading what they enjoy, or give them worthy-but-dull books that you like, the 21st-century equivalents of Victorian “improving” literature. You’ll wind up with a generation convinced that reading is uncool and worse, unpleasant. … Another way to destroy a child’s love of reading, of course, is to make sure there are no books of any kind around.

Science fiction makes its way to China and the importance of imagination.

I was in China in 2007, at the first party-approved science fiction and fantasy convention in Chinese history. And at one point I took a top official aside and asked him Why? SF had been disapproved of for a long time. What had changed?

It’s simple, he told me. The Chinese were brilliant at making things if other people brought them the plans. But they did not innovate and they did not invent. They did not imagine. So they sent a delegation to the US, to Apple, to Microsoft, to Google, and they asked the people there who were inventing the future about themselves. And they found that all of them had read science fiction when they were boys or girls.

On the value of libraries and why anyone who sees them as nothing more than a shelf of books misses the point.

[L]ibraries are about freedom. Freedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedom of communication. They are about education (which is not a process that finishes the day we leave school or university), about entertainment, about making safe spaces, and about access to information.

On moving from an information scarce society to one overloaded.

Information has value, and the right information has enormous value. For all of human history, we have lived in a time of information scarcity, and having the needed information was always important, and always worth something: when to plant crops, where to find things, maps and histories and stories – they were always good for a meal and company. Information was a valuable thing, and those who had it or could obtain it could charge for that service.

In the last few years, we’ve moved from an information-scarce economy to one driven by an information glut.

Books are a gateway to making friends with the eminent dead.

Books are the way that we communicate with the dead. The way that we learn lessons from those who are no longer with us, that humanity has built on itself, progressed, made knowledge incremental rather than something that has to be relearned, over and over. There are tales that are older than most countries, tales that have long outlasted the cultures and the buildings in which they were first told.

Our obligation to daydream.

We all – adults and children, writers and readers – have an obligation to daydream. We have an obligation to imagine. It is easy to pretend that nobody can change anything, that we are in a world in which society is huge and the individual is less than nothing: an atom in a wall, a grain of rice in a rice field. But the truth is, individuals change their world over and over, individuals make the future, and they do it by imagining that things can be different

(Via @YLevitan)
(Photo via The Guardian)