Posts Tagged ‘Reading’

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

The other day I zoomed through Arthur Koestler’s classic prison memoir, Dialogue With Death.  Koestler was an important 1930s journalist/novelist/intellectual.  As with many of 9780226449616his generation, he was a leftist who flirted with Communism before becoming disenchanted by Stalin, Stalinism and the horrendous crimes perpetuated by the regime during that era.

But, Koestler was more than just a pie-in-the-sky intellectual with his head buried in dusty books.  He got his hands dirty experiencing the unstable political world of 1930s Europe. He witnessed first-hand many of the continent’s revolutions, putsches and civil wars.  Dialogue With Death is his 200 page account of Spanish Civil War battles, his coverage of Republican forces in that war, and his eventual capture by General Francisco Franco’s fascist troops.  After being captured, Koestler was thrown in jail, where he was kept in

popup

Koestler on his way to the North Pole, 1931

 

solitary confinement for the weeks leading up to his expected execution. In the hands of Franco’s fascists, death was the common punishment for ‘Reds’.  However, after a couple weeks his solitary slowly became less solitary. He began to clandestinely speak to other prisoners outside his cell; eventually, he was even given the opportunity to pick a book out of the prison ‘library’.

His description of getting his hands on his first book in over a month is a wonderfully evocative ode to the joys of reading:

‘I sat down on the bed, lit the cigarette and began to read….I read devoutly and fervently – and very slowly….I learned to read anew, with a long since forgotten concentration on every sentence, every adjective; I felt like someone who has been bed-ridden and who in learning to walk anew is acutely conscious of the play of his muscles. I fancy the Romans must have read in this fashion when books were written by hand on long parchment rolls; devoutly, sentence by sentence, only a few inches of the roll a day, so as to keep the rest for the morrow. When writers were obliged to use parchment rolls they knew how carefully people read them, and had confidence in their readers. Nowadays readers may have confidence in the writer, but writers have no confidence in the reader.’

Koestler was a bibliophile.  But, Koestler’s statement illustrates more than simply his love of books. Koestler’s words illustrate his discovery of the lost art of ‘intensive reading’.  Before his nightmarish prison experience, Koestler was most likely a typical modern reader; he read ‘extensively’. He read whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted.  But in prison, the world he understood was destroyed.  Books became an impossible luxury. When he was finally able to settle into a book again, Koestler could not help but intensively read. By reading in this way, he made himself a pre-modern.   Literary scholar Geoffrey Turnovsky has pointed out that intensive reading was a skill practiced prior to the 15th-18th century printing boom. At that time, reading

‘was shaped by scarcity rather than abundance, and by the sway of powerful institutions – the Church, universities- that oriented reading in a conservative, stabilizing manner. To read intensively was to focus on a small set of works, rereading each one over and over, not….new information, or surprising amusements, but as part of a ritualistic re-affirmation of faith, understanding, or inclusion in a recognized community.

Though troubling in many ways (ie, not informational or original), intensive reading meant that the reader was supremely focused upon what he/she was studying.Friedrich_Herlin,_Reading_Saint_Peter_(1466)

In comparison, the modern world is marked by extensiveness.  We are more likely to be inundated under an avalanche of reading materials than to be facing a scarcity. Thus, reading as a skill is most valued by speed and efficiency. Just think of the millions spent by those who take speed-reading courses in hopes of plowing through a 500 page novel in 2 hours. In our education system, efficiency is as important as speed. When some of my fellow students in grad school complained about the reading load for one professor’s class, he informed us that we needed to learn what to read, and what to ignore in the books he assigned. A strange request, for a strange culture.

Of course, extensive reading and ubiquitous texts have led to a great many goods. The average human today has knowledge that the pre-printing intensive readers could only dream of.  I mean, who really wants to return to a world of medieval monks chanting and repeating memorized liturgies? Needless to say I am also not romanticizing solitary confinement in a right-wing secret prison with only a handful of books. Personally though, I sometimes think I don’t enjoy what I read enough; I find that I have the habit of thinking about my next book during the reading of my current book.  This is extensive reading absurdity.

In our world of extensive readings, Koestler’s rediscovery of books in a dark fascist prison cell is always good to keep in mind.

Advertisements

By Tricia Lunt, English Faculty

“Learned we may be with another man’s learning: we can only be wise with wisdom of our own.”
― Michel de Montaigne

I’m using a new book Alain De Botton’s quirky, exploratory text The Consolations of Philosophy to teach my summer course, the rather ambitiously titled Creative Reasoning and Investigative Learning: Critically Engaging Self & Society. Reading along with my students is a rare treat since I can be surprised by the assigned reading as my students are. This week’s chapter addresses the theme of inadequacy through a discussion of portions of the Essays of Michel de Montaigne.Essays

Every teacher of writing knows Michel de Montaigne as the “father” of the “modern” discursive essay, primarily because he was among the first to call what he was writing “essays” or “Essais” in French, meaning attempts, which casts a redemptively pleasant light on the endeavor to create meaning through reflective writing. Another important distinction of Montaigne’s work is that he wrote about anything and everything that interested him, sometimes including classical references and scholarly ideas, but most often not, thereby freeing prose writing from centuries of strict formality. Thus, the essays that my students consider excessively formal are actually a relaxed form encompassing a leisurely discussion of essentially anything.

A lover of words, I am a fan of eloquent statements, a trait I share with Montaigne (one of several similarities I can draw between my life and that of a man who lived and died more than 400 years before me). Montaigne collected and considered quotes from thinkers he revered, decorating the ceiling of his library with his favorites. I’ve posted favorite quotations to my walls since college, more evidence of the deeply personal relationship we seek to build with authors and texts we admire, seeing in them what we want to see in ourselves.A-Readers-Lens-and-Baggage-Framed-copy

One of my favorite books utilizes Montaigne’s essays as a means of understanding life. I may have already mentioned or recommended it here: Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. Bakewell’s writing style is equal parts fluid and fascinating.

After finishing the Bakewell, I read Montaigne’s original essays because her explication makes them seem so fabulous, which they are to a large degree, the historical distance causing few difficulties. A brilliant scholar, Bakewell elevates her source material, identifying the most enthralling aspects and glossing over the rest. In fact, Montaigne’s essays were a tiny bit disappointing after Bakewell’s glittering overview, because they contain dull bits she chose to exclude.

Alain de Botton’s exploration of Montaigne is decidedly different. He offers less in the way of interpretation; instead, he uses Montaigne to discuss the selected theme of inadequacy. Honestly, I would never have connected Montaigne’s work with the theme of “inadequacy” as De Botton has done, but the results remain intriguing.

One of the central discussions De Botton supports with excerpts from Montaigne involves sexual inadequacy. When I think of inadequacy, my mind does not immediately jump to that of a sexual nature. I almost never contemplate sexual inadequacy. Indeed, I was surprised to see the subtopic as much as the connection to Montaigne.

This, coupled with a different reading of a crucial part of Montaigne’s life reveals a wonderful attribute of interpretation—a great many are possible, and a large number can be valid, as long as ample textual evidence and sound logic make the argument reasonable.

Another key difference between Bakewell and De Botton’s discussion of Montaigne pertains to his most intimate friend, Etienne de la Boetie. The friendship was exceptionally close, and while Bakewell considers yet ultimately dismisses a potential sexual aspect to the relationship, De Botton doesn’t address this possibility at all.  The differentiation is analogous to two portrayals of Hamlet, an apt correlation because source material must be richly complex in order to support a range of responses. With the same source material, these two capable authors produce insights that are only potentially true, and certainly not all encompassing.multiple-paths

Thus, all readers can and should add their voices to the conversation. I tell my students that if there were only one way to think about something, there would be only one book on each topic in the library.

This is part of what drives my devotion to books, and reading, and ideas: all open endless avenues to explore, allowing each reader to forge ahead to create his or her own unique path.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

As the weather warms, and the sun becomes radiant, I know what is coming: ‘Beach reads’.  NPR will do a story about the best ‘beach reads’; Facebook friends will share lists of  the ‘hottest summer reads’;  bookstores will John Lavery (Irish Painter, 1856-1941) Girl in a Red Dress Reading by a Swimming Pooldisplay the most scorching books of the summer.  Well, I am here today to proclaim ‘ENOUGH’!  I have had it with the ‘beach read’ status quo. We need a literary revolution.

Let me be clear, I have nothing against bringing books to the beach.  I myself have a book with me at all times. When I go to the pool, I bring a book.  When I go to the playground with my kids, I bring a book.  And yes, when I go to the beach, I bring a book.  So, it is not the idea of ‘beach reads’ that irks me.  What annoys me is the notion that ‘beach reads’ must be mind-numbing, poorly written pap. ‘Beach reads’ have become the reality television of the literary world.

I ask myself, why do Americans willingly waste hours and hours of relaxation reading books that are turned out by authors who are formulaic and, as most will admit, absolutely forgettable? I realize the answer that most give to this question: ‘Beach reads’ should be entertaining and should allow the reader to ‘lose himself’.  I understand, I really do.  But, this points to the central kernel of why a revolution is necessary.  Though publishing houses, bookstores, and our mass media disagree, entertainment is not the antithesis of quality.  Unlike the deadening ephemeral nature of today’s ‘beach reads’, great literature lives and breathes beyond the three months of summer because it is so entertaining. Don’t believe me? Pick up Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby this month, and feel the life pulsating through the pages. Grab Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov in July, and discover the definition of a ‘page turner.’  In August, just try to put down Salinger’s Franny and Zooey.

As with all revolutions, this one has a utopian undercurrent. I hope this summer, millions of Americans will be laying on the beach, lost in Phillip Roth, or Richard Wright, or Yukio Mishima, or Toni Morrison and gain insights into humanity.  What better time to be meditative on the human condition then when you are lying under the scalding sun, breathing in the scents of summer?  Perhaps Franz Kafka can be our revolutionary forebear? Over a century ago, Kafka wrote to a friend that:images (12)

Altogether, I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us. If the book we are reading doesn’t shake us awake like a blow to the skull, why bother reading it in the first place? So that it can make us happy…? Good God, we’d be just as happy if we had no books at all; books that make us happy we could, in a pinch, also write ourselves. What we need are books that hit us like a most painful misfortune, like the death of someone we loved more than we love ourselves, that make us feel as though we had been banished to the woods, far from any human presence, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is what I believe.”

Okay, maybe Kafka goes a little far, but the basis of his idea is correct.  Books should stay with us after we close the cover.  The ‘beach reads’ of today are the opposite of this ideal.  They are particularly marketed as the art of the forgettable.  Like so much else in our society, ‘beach reads’ are intended to be disposable.  So, I say, let’s dispose of them!  Bury your latest Faye Kellerman in the sand!  Toss your Richard North Patterson into the waves!  It is time for a revolution, and this revolution will not be reality-televised!

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

Remember “The Cosby Show”?  If you are too young to answer in the affirmative, you better go check it out on Netflix or Youtube.  Go now, I will wait…..Okay, now that you realize what you were missing, did you see (or do you remember) the episode in which Theo and Cockroach need to read Shakespeare’s Macbeth for an English test?  The two boys talk about girls, clothes, sports, cars and music, but they have no desire to read the play.  So, they look for a supposedly easy out.  The slackers attempt to avoid reading Shakespeare by listening to a recorded version of the play instead.  They get the recorded album (it is the 80’s remember) of Macbeth from the library; they think listening to it will allow them to avert hard-work.  To their disappointment, they find it is not simple to listen to Shakespeare.  With the album of Macbeth out of the picture, the boys stumble upon “Cleland Notes” that provide a quick summary of the tragedy.   Have a look at a couple classic scenes:

“The Cosby Show” always had a lesson.  This episode obviously was attempting to tell kids that hard work (like reading Shakespeare) would pay off, and trying to get around it by doing something easier would come back to haunt you, like a ghostly blood-stained dagger. The show’s moral could be stated even more bluntly: Reading is good.  Don’t avoid it.  Just do it.  Cockroach and Theo need to learn this the hard way. They likely fail the English test.

Who would disagree with this moral? In our society, most parents stand with Cliff and Claire Huxtable, arguing that reading is an absolute good; always the best learning methodology.  But, these arguments don’t hold water. We don’t live in a world of absolutes, and reading is not always a complete good.  The two boys are right.  Reading ‘The Bard’ can be a chore. On the other hand, watching and listening to Shakespeare is unforgettable.

Dear reader, you must understand that I am a bibliophile extraordinaire.  If I have free time, I read books.  I read on the train; in between classes; before bed; with my morning coffee. I love reading.  It is my hobby; my passion.  I agree with Cliff and Claire Huxtable’s unstated moral: Reading provides enjoyment, intellectual stimulation and self-betterment. But, there are just certain things that should be heard, seen or experienced, and not read.  Sit down and read Sophocles to yourself; then listen to or watch Oedipus the King.  The difference is staggering.  Reading the words provides beauty, but watching the tragedy performed is incomparable.

51noqEetVvL._SL500_AA300_PIaudible,BottomRight,13,73_AA300_This topic is on my mind because I am teaching at a branch campus this quarter, and hence, I am in the car for a couple hours a day. When in the car, I listen to audiobooks to pass the time. I would initially grab audiobooks dealing with my preferred topics of study: History, psychology, philosophy.  I found that these books were good reading, but poor listening.  So, a couple weeks ago, I went with something more exciting. I grabbed the 11 CD audiobook of The Odyssey by Homer as read by Sir Ian McKellen.  Boom! Incredible.

homer

Homer?

This wasn’t my first run-in with Homer.  I read The Odyssey my Sophomore year in college for a Western Civilization course.  Our professor told us on Tuesday to read the 500-plus page epic by that Thursday.  This was ridiculous.  Of course, I read the book as fast as possible, skimming through the ‘unimportant’ parts.  My experience with Telemachus, Circe, Odysseus and the Cyclops was tainted.  Though it has so many recognizable moments, reading the work frantically felt repetitive, and truthfully, boring.

That was 15 years ago. I thought I would give it another go with the recorded version.  Listening to the words, not reading them to myself, clarified the absolute power of Homer’s masterpiece.  The beauty of the language and the psychological introspection of character was magnified ten-fold. Even the repetition (necessary since the work was orally relayed from bard to bard) started to become addictive and beautiful.  Listening to the reoccurring descriptions was a welcome occurrence,  not an annoyance.

The Greeks did not lionize the written word above other methods of pedagogy.  How could they with their cultural inheritance of Homer?  How could they when the tragedies of Sophocles and Euripides were central to civic life?  How could they when Socrates was questioning Athenians in the Agora?  To be honest, Socrates thought quite negatively of the written word.  He was concerned that reading and writing may ruin the skills of conversation, argument and memory.  In this belief, Socrates was far too radical.  Reading is obviously wondrous.   But, the opposite belief that reading is the only correct way to learn is just as radical, and just as wrong.  Theo and Cockroach had the right idea about that, methinks.