The Adventurous Reader


What is an “adventurous reader”? I’m two chapters into a novel by Jedediah Berry, titled The Manual of Detection. The CIP data on the copyright page indicate that subjects for this work of fiction include (1) private investigators, (2) femmes fatales, and (3) criminals.

Inside the front cover are three pages of accolades, many of them praising the book for its departure from conventions and its playful spirit. The Wall Street Journal says that the author “defies mystery novel conventions, but adventurous readers who stay with his strange and fabulous debut work will be handsomely rewarded.”

I wonder, what is an “adventurous reader”?

Here are some possibilities. An “adventurous reader” is someone who:

  1. reads literature in any genre that contains adventure: fantasy, science fiction, the detective procedural, etc.;
  2. steps outside his normal reading habits or patterns to read beyond “other stuff”;
  3. lives more fully within the pages of books he reads;
  4. reads what others in his field, or in his peer group, or in his circle of friends do not read;
  5. takes on authors who are challenging, difficult, mind-stretching;
  6. devotes much of his reading time to authors with whom he disagrees
  7. reads backwards, starting with the last word on the last page;
  8. reads only every other page.

There must be other possibilities. Is the adventure to be found in the act of reading—its how—or in the object read? Both?

I guess I consider myself an adventurous reader—though I think “adventuresome” might be the better word. But why? I read “broadly.” I’m patient about finding “just the right book.” But I will sometimes take a chance on something with little to go on.

Does the adventuresome reader read slowly, or quickly? Is speed irrelevant? Or has speed got to do with being one kind of adventuresome reader? Wouldn’t it be an adventure to read five novels in a day, allowing only thirty minutes for each? Or to pick slowly through a complex text, in an effort to notice everything worthwhile—what is written, how it is composed, the contribution it makes to our knowledge or a fulfilled life?

Adventure is a pretty pliable concept. Applied to the reader, it has interesting possibilities.

Are you an “adventurous reader”? Why would you say so? Do you know someone how is more adventurous than yourself?

Chances Are, You’re Married to the Wrong Person


Romeo and Juliet.

Image via Wikipedia

Actually, it should be said, “Chances are 100% that you’re married to the wrong person” (assuming you are married).

You may not be surprised to hear that you’re married to the wrong person. You’ve believed this for a long time, so it resonates. But you are a little troubled, possibly even vexed, that I know this about you. And you’re aghast at the very suggestion that it was bound to be so, that, whoever you are, you married the wrong person.

If this sounds wildly implausible to you, then I recommend reading a post by Lori Lowe, titled “We All Married the Wrong Person”—at her Marriage Gems blog.

In her post, Lori recounts the high points in her interview with Dr. Scott Haltzman, a psychiatrist whose books focus on marriage and family dynamics. Haltzman explains why we should acknowledge that we’ve married the wrong person. For that, we should consider the evidence that it’s true.

  • We never know a person completely when we step into marriage with him or her.
  • Marriage frequently begins with star-crossed lovers, blind to each other’s faults or limitations.
  • We bring unrealistic expectations into our marriages, expectations that cannot be fulfilled by anyone.
  • We all change with time and circumstance, so that we find we’re married to a different person over time.
  • The frequency of divorce is alarmingly high.
  • Couples that remain married acknowledge that they are not always completely happy in their marriages.
  • The pool of marriage candidates may be so large that the odds of choosing the right person are low to begin with.

Lori’s excellent post surfaces many valuable points. There are others to consider.

First, the whole concept of a right person to marry needs to be examined. Even if we allow that more than one person could be right for us, we should wonder:

  1. What does it mean for a person to be right for me?
  2. How would I know that a certain person is right for me?
  3. How would I know later that the person I married is not right for me after all?
  4. And what if every “right person” marries the wrong person—that is, marries someone other than me?

Second, suppose there is no “right person” for anyone to marry, at least in the sense that so many hope for. Anyone you marry will, sooner or later, disappoint. But this does not mean:

  1. You should never marry.
  2. Your marriage to the wrong person cannot succeed.

And it definitely does not mean that:

  1. Any person you marry is good enough.
  2. There is no person who is wrong for you.

Third, some readers will argue from a religious point of view that for those people who should marry, there is always the right person. This, they may say, is tied to the sovereignty of God and God’s special means of guidance for individual believers.

Even if this is true, the questions raised here are still vital. They translate into questions about what God desires for us, how we know what God desires for us, and how we know when we’ve found what God desires for us.

Fourth, we should commit to having a successful marriage, and let go any idealistic notion of being married to just the right person and having a perfect marriage.

Fifth, we should welcome a different conception of the values and rewards of marriage than what is so widely assumed today.

Scott Haltzman’s books:

A book I recommend on decision making for the Christian, and its wisdom approach to marriage decisions, is Decision Making and the Will of God, by Garry Friesen.

Two Bad Ideas—Building a Mosque & Burning the Qur’an


Two big items in the news today: first, Imam Feisal Abdul’s article congratulating America on its religious tolerance of Islam; second, an American pastor’s plans to burn copies of the Qur’an on the anniversary of 9/11.

Building a mosque at Ground Zero is a bad idea. So is burning the Qur’an.

The media and politicians on the Left are obsessed with the differences between the two intentions. Putting it mildly, they condone the erection of the controversial mosque. But let’s be honest. Those who haven’t been silent—including President Obama and NYC mayor Bloomberg—have expressed unequivocal support for building the mosque (even though they have equivocated following their unequivocal expressions of support).

What about the pastor, with plans of his own? He is angrily denounced.

Ahem. What about the striking similarity between the two men and their “projects”?

Whatever else can be said about their true intentions, their plans appear to be deliberately provocative. That’s the point that ought to be stressed in the great conversation we’re having about “tolerance” and “rights.”

Within the framework of this likeness—that is, both are deliberately provocative—we can make more useful distinctions between the men and their plans. We should acknowledge their similarity, then ask: as deliberately provocative acts, how do they differ?

Here’s one salient difference. A mosque will have a longer term effect, with direct bearing on more people, than the singular act of burning copies of the Qur’an on 9/11. The minister’s action, if he goes through with it in a few days, will soon be forgotten—even by Muslims, I dare say. But if the mosque is built, it will stand as a permanent monument to—well, what?

For non-muslims, the mosque would not be a monument to anything at all. But can this be said of Muslims? Hmm?

How to Write a Lot—A Review


Cover of "How to Write a Lot: A Practical...

Cover via Amazon

Maybe you’d like to write a lot. Maybe you have to write a lot. Here’s a book you may like a lot.

The book is published by the American Psychological Association. Silvia, a relatively young scholar, teaches and writes about psychology. In this book, he applies his own eclectic method in  psychology to the ordeal of writing as an academic.

I say eclectic because Silvia expects his counsel to be congenial to psychologists of various stripes:

  • developmental psychologists
  • cognitive psychologists
  • clinical psychologists
  • emotion psychologists
  • psychologists with interdisciplinary interests

What he writes is for all academics who wish to be more productive writers. But he does advise his peers in psychology a little more directly on occasion. When he says, “Our academic journals radiate bad writing,” he means journals in his discipline. But scholars across the disciplines will recognize the sort.

Silvia pokes fun in good humor. He notes that “psychologists love bad words,” then points out that “they call them deficient or suboptimal instead of bad.” He means, of course, that words like “deficient” and “suboptimal” are often needlessly “erudite,” and therefore bad for good writing.

“Psychologists like writing about the existing literature. Is there a nonexistent literature that I should be reading and referencing?” It’s nice to hear a psychologist asking such a philosophical question. (I’m afraid that some philosophers, in response, will get caught up in analyzing “should” and explaining the scope of relevant research literature in terms of counterfactuals and alternative worlds.)

There are chapters here on:

  • Writing articles—”Your paper might be rejected once or twice before it finds a good home, but a good paper will always find a home.”
  • Writing books—”If you have something to say, write a book.”
  • Writing with style—”Your first drafts should sound like they were hastily translated from Icelandic by a nonnative speaker.”

But the crucial chapters are two, three, and four (pp. 11-57):

  • Chapter 2: “Specious Barriers to Writing a Lot”
  • Chapter 3: “Motivational Tools”
  • Chapter 4: “Starting Your Own Agraphia Group”

Silvia’s aim is to introduce the reader to “a practical system for becoming a productive academic writer.” He acknowledges the irony of writing such a short book on how to write a lot. But, he says, “there isn’t much to say. The system is simple.”

The “system” is indeed simple. It comes down to this. Create a manageable writing routine and stick to it. Specifics include:

  • Follow a schedule (a little writing every weekday, if possible).
  • Set long-term goals for completing writing projects.
  • Set concrete goals for each scheduled writing session.
  • Prioritize your writing.
  • Avoid binge writing.
  • Monitor your progress.
  • Permit yourself a measure of “windfall writing” when it comes naturally.
  • Always engage in some writing-related task during the scheduled writing session.
  • Settle for the simplest of writing implements to be sure you’re always able to write on schedule.
  • Be content with whatever writing environment you’re permitted by your circumstances.
  • Expect a flood of quality writing ideas as a result of regular writing.
  • Join an “agraphia” group.

All of this is excellent advice. Much of it is common sense, often repeated in “the literature” on writing. But such common sense is seldom practiced.

Here are three areas where Silvia’s book might have been stronger:

  1. His comments on writer’s block are slight and mildly dismissive. He’s onto something when he says that “scheduled writers don’t get writer’s block.” But even scheduled writers can be unproductive. This relates to my next point.
  2. He could say more about how to plan scheduled work so that it is completed on schedule. It isn’t enough to (a) decide on a project to be completed, (b) sit down to write regularly about that topic, and (c) set concrete goals for each writing session. Even if every concrete goal is mission critical, regular writing will not ensure project completion. A disciplined writer doesn’t just write daily (or whatever “regularly” means in his case). He writes towards completion of a project.
  3. He understates the value of style in academic writing. This is a bit surprising. Silvia himself writes with engaging style. And he devotes a chapter to style. But oddly, the chapter dedicated to the topic is preoccupied with aids to writing strong, clear sentences. This is a minimalist approach to style. It derives from the notion that “as academics, we’re not creating high literature” (p. 26). This outlook may enable the blocked academic writer. But I’m a strong advocate for writing that engages as it informs.

Most scholars, even the most-published ones I imagine, would like to be more productive writers. Paul Silvia presents a method that works. The book moves chapter by chapter through the standard barriers to productive, anxiety-free academic writing. It’s a quick read with much practical advice, some of it on points not mentioned here.

The Serious Business of Lying and the Enterprise of Fiction


Battle of Borodino

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Ursula Le Guin objects to the idea that science fiction is predictive. In 1976, she wrote:

Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive.

Predictions are uttered by prophets (free of charge); by clairvoyants (who usually charge a fee, and are therefore more honored in their day than prophets); and by futurologists (salaried). Prediction is the business of prophets, clairvoyants, and futurologists. It is not the business of novelists. A novelist’s business is lying.

— Ursula K. Le Guin, Introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness

Lying, you might say, is serious business. Even when it comes to fiction, when we like to be lied to. But why do we like to be lied to, those of us who read fiction and pay good money to see movies?

There’s a clue in the title of John Dufresne’s guide to writing fiction: The Lie That Tells a Truth. Fiction and film, at their best, package important truths in a tissue of lies. Some of these truths we already know before our fictive experience of them. Others we learn, if we trust the lies, when fiction happens to us. And often it is our capacity to trust the lie that makes us vulnerable to truths.

Some will protest that the novelist and the screenwriter do not lie. After all, we know “it’s only a story.” But since when has this stopped us from believing what we know isn’t so? Isn’t Le Guin onto something when she says,

In fact, while we read a novel, we are insane—bonkers. We believe in the existence of people who aren’t there, we hear their voices, we watch the battle of Borodino with them, we may even become Napolean. Sanity returns (in most cases) when the book is closed.

And in the thick of our believing, we don’t want to be reminded that “it’s only a story.” We’re like the lad whose grandfather reads to him in the movie The Princess Bride. He’s not as ambivalent as he pretends. And neither are we. If it’s a really good story.

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