The Unexamined Life and the Fate of Serious Reading


A serious book about serious reading. By “serious” I mean a book that takes comparatively serious effort. But Bound to Please is also a pleasing book, for those who make the effort. You’ll know what I mean by “serious” and “pleasing” when you read the following selection. Author Michael Dirda comments on a report issued by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH)—called “Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America.” The preface to that report is by Dana Gioia, a distinguished poet and critic.

“’Reading at Risk’ is right to lament the decline of what I will forthrightly call bookishness. As the report implies, the Internet seems to have delivered a possibly knockout punch. Our children now can scarcely use a library and instead look to the Web when they need to learn just about anything. We all just click away with the mouse and remote control, speeding through a blur of links, messages, images, data of all sorts. Is this reading? As Gioia reminds us, ‘print culture affords irreplaceable forms of focused attention and contemplation that make complex communications and insights possible. To lose such intellectual capability—and the many sorts of human continuity it allows—would constitute a vast cultural impoverishment.’

 

“Yes, the Internet has allowed fans of Finnegans Wake and Dorothy Sayers and the English ghost story to gather and share their knowledge. Web sites and chat rooms do encourage people from around the world to form digital communities. But the computer must seem a far more ambiguous gift to anyone who has ever faced screenfuls of spam, or discovered that hours are eaten up just answering email, or found their colleagues drooling over pixellated lovelies, or noticed that their children had stopped going outside because they were unable to tear themselves away from bloody, digitized battles, or simply realized that they themselves felt incomplete when not online every minute of the day—and half the night. In other words, virtually all of us recognize that that flat-screen monitor before our eyes casts an insidious spell, and all too often it seems that the best minds of the next generation—and more than a few of our own—are being lost to its insidious, relentless ensorcellments. Who now among the young aspires to be cultivated and learned, which takes discipline, rather than breezily provocative, wise-crackingly edgy’?

 

“Americans can still be smart and creative, but the pressure of the times is oriented toward quickness—we want instant messaging, live news breaks, fast food, mobile phoning, and snap judgments. As a result, we are growing into a shallow people, happy enough with the easy gratifications of mere speed and spectacle in all aspects of life. Real books are simply too serious for us. Too slow. Too hard. Too long. Now and again, we may feel that just maybe we’ve shortchanged our better selves, that we might have listened to great music, contemplated profoundly moving works of art, read books that mattered, but instead we turned away from them because it was time to tune into Law and Order reruns, or jack into a WarCraft game on our home computer, or get back to the latest made-for-TV best seller. Sometimes nonetheless, late at night or when faced with one of life’s true crises, we will surprise in ourselves what poet Philip Larkin called the hunger to be more serious.”

MDirda-Book Cover-Bound to Please

Bound to Please: An Extraordinary One-Volume Literary Education—Essays on Great Writers and Their Books
Author: Michael Dirda
Publisher: W. W. Norton
Copyright 2005 by Michael Dirda
Pages xxv-xxvi

Questions to Consider:
1. Dirda compares serious reading with the Internet, to draw attention to the special value of reading real books. What values are compromised when the print-culture gives way to the Web-culture?
2. What is Dirda’s basic thesis? What do you find most convincing about his thesis?
3. How do these few paragraphs make you feel about your own reading practices?
4. What does the word ensorcellment mean? Why would Dirda use an unfamiliar word like this here?

Building a Case for Architecture—Part 2 in a Series


My first entry in this series was about my experiences reading science fiction. Readers would naturally have expected a continuation of the series with more on SF. So what’s up with architecture?

Here’s what’s up. I got the idea to reflect on my past and present experiences, with thoughts tossed in about what I’d still like to read (or read again) and why. But I want to zero in on the best of my experiences in categories. These categories may be broad, or they may be very focused.

Image.Book Cover.Alain de Botton.Architecture of HappinessWith this in mind, feel free to read the following interview with myself:

Alias: How did you come by this lame idea?

Doug: To begin, I read a lot. Too much for other people’s good. Most of the books I’ve read I own, and the best ones are a valuable part of my library. Among my treasured books are books about books. One of these is a book called The Reader’s Companion: A Book Lover’s Guide to the Most Important Books in Every Field of Knowledge, as Chosen by the Experts. Now, I’m not expert about very many things, but books have been great companions for me for as long as I can remember.

Alias: What are some books you remember from your youth?

Doug: I may get to that in a separate contribution to this series. But the other day I was reminded of a whole series of books that I read cover-to-cover. I was riding on the Coaster—a train that runs from Oceanside to San Diego—with my extended family. There were about 25 of us. I got to chatting with one of my young nephews and I asked him what books he liked. He said he likes the Sugar Creek books. So bam! out of the blue comes this memory of all The Sugar Creek Gang books. I was reading those about 35 years ago! So my nephew and I have a lot in common. See what happens when you talk about books?

Alias: So this series is about books that have been important to you?

Doug: Important to me in a way that might be of interest to others who care about the things I care about. I’ve spent a lifetime asking people for book suggestions. I want to write about the choices I’ve made along the way, why they mattered then and whether they matter now, and reasons I might recommend them to others. It would be tough to list the most important books in my own field, and impossible for any other field. But I can list books of value, and that’s what matters. If I’m interested in a genre of literature new to me, like science fiction or epic poetry, I want to select from choice offerings. I poke around and ask people for suggestions. Then I jump in. I get a feel for things, and then I move on. Maybe I come back.

Alias: Why don’t you have a classy name for this series?

Doug: Good question. What would you suggest?

Alias: How about “Books of Value”?

Doug: I like it. Maybe my readers will have some great ideas, too. I can go back and change titles to earlier entries in the series to reflect the name of the series. But a series name should be catchy, and it should reveal something about what to expect.

Alias: This entry is called “Building a Case for Architecture”? Why is that if all we’re doing here is conducting an interview?

Doug: Well, we got a little off track. But architecture is an interest of mine. I mean, I’m interested in certain things about architecture—what buildings mean, why one building is beautiful and another isn’t, whether a particular building fits its surroundings or whether it’s poorly located. How long a building has been where it stands, and what the surrounding area was like when construction was completed. There’s no way that Christopher Wren could have imagine how the city of London would eventually gobble up the ornate churches he designed for the city. There are so many angles on architecture. I guess there was a pun in that.

Alias: What are some other interesting issues?

Doug: Whether the purpose of a building has changed over time. For example, this seems to be the case with so many churches in New England, all painted white and adorned with a simple steeple. What are they there for now? What happened there? That question, “What are they there for now?” sort of grabs me. These buildings have been “re-purposed,” as if that purpose they now serve is the purpose they were designed to serve. “They’re so cute. Perfect for a boutique shop, or a tea room.”

I’m interested in changes in architecture over time, and why some forms of ancient architecture have been borrowed many times since their invention. For example, do you know the architectural basis for this nation’s capitol building? Why was this chosen? Who made the decisions? What was this new adoption of classical architecture supposed to mean to a young nation?

Ot this . . . how does a building make you feel when you stand next to it, or when you’re inside? Is it better to view it from a distance? Is it even possible to view it from a distance, or is it too crowded by other buildings? When I see a photo of aerial view of New York City, what do I see? Buildings. I don’t see one building; I see many buildings. But I may not focus on any one of them. My attention may be on the whole that somehow is NYC. How is that possible? What does it say about NY? What does it say about me? Am I different than most people in the ways my attention is attracted when I see a skyline?

What’s more impressive, the Golden Gate Bridge as such or the terrific human accomplishment it represents? Does it really “represent” human achievement? Is it supposed to? Or try this one. How is the Golden Gate Bridge different in kind than the “carvings” of Mount Rushmore? What does Mount Rushmore “mean”? Are there any buildings that mean the same thing? Could there be? What is the limit to what a building can mean? And what may be a related question, what were the great monarchs or the papacy thinking when they commissioned the design and erection of certain buildings?

Many old buildings get bull-dozed, but others are preserved at great expense? What makes the difference? Who decides? Have there been any major regrets about decisions past? And how, exactly, is a building preserved? You can’t tuck them away in an art museum somewhere.

Alias: And there are books that explore such things?

Doug: Yes! My first suggestion is the book The Architecture of Happiness, by Alain de Botton. Start here. If you aren’t turned on about buildings after that, then move on. Read about crocodiles instead. If you’re hooked, then learn a little about types of architecture. For this I suggest the morsel Architecture: A Very Short Introduction, by Andrew Ballantyne. It’s not beautifully crafted, like de Botton’s, but it’s short and it’s educational. There are guidebooks for specific buildings or neighborhoods. There are books with sketches of buildings old and new. And don’t forget about biographies of great or celebrated architects: Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier. And then are biographies, as it were, of buildings themselves, accounts of how they were designed and built, the purposes they served or serve, and so on. Think of the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, the Taj Mahal.

Alias: Are there books on architecture that you hope to get to eventually?

Doug: Yes. Heavenly Mansions and Other Essays on Architecture, by John Summerson; Lewis Mumford’s From the Ground Up, another book of essays. These authors are good at their craft. They are wordsmiths, which makes reading about architecture (or anything, for that matter) more enjoyable. I like the essay style because you can dip into a work at your leisure and take something away in short order. Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space looks interesting to me from this distance. But the style of French philosophy may not be to my liking. We’ll see.

Other Sources for Reading about Architecture (for non-architects):

Readers, do you have suggestions for non-architects reading to understand and appreciate architecture? Leave your suggestions for the rest of us in the comments box.

Robert Heinlein and the Novelty of Science Fiction—Part 1 in a Series


I have no special expertise in science fiction. I’ve read little of it. But what I’ve read I’ve selected carefully and most of it has been a joy to read. The league of SF enthusiasts is intense if not immense. Though the SF genre has attracted a hefty percentage of readers, this result has been hard-won. This is my impression from the sidelines, as it were.

My limited direct experiences with science fiction may be of interest to those fiction readers who have long wondered what all the fuss is about, and to those enthusiasts who care to know what a neophyte like myself might say about what he’s found worthwhile.

So here is the first installment in my recounting of those experiences . . .

Image.Book Cover.Job Comedy of Justice.Robert HeinleinI think the first author I read was Robert A. Heinlein. An excellent choice, I’m sure the experts would agree. (You may know him through some of the films inspired by his work.) The trouble is remembering which book came first—and whether there were others. I’m pretty sure it was Job: A Comedy of Justice. I like sustained, serious comedy, and I’ve always been drawn to the Old Testament book of Job. Putting the two together would be quite a feat. Those who subscribe to my webpages will likely find this novel a tempting entry point for reasons that resemble my own. (Others, who do judge a book by its cover, may be drawn first to his book Friday.)

As a philosopher, I can appreciate Heinlein’s talent as an observer of the human condition and what a future society might look like, if we continue on our present course, or if dramatic changes happen to us (notably through the development of technology). Heinlein had metaphysical and epistemological interests, as well, but his sensibilities were quite different than my own. This is no reason to pass over his ouvre. I’m an advocate for reading outside your comfort zone and conversing with diverse perspectives. It’s an aid to understanding your own worldview, and accepting it more responsibly. And fiction is among the best ways to access alternative perspectives on reality and human experience. Literate science fiction can do that for you. (I think, also, of Robert Pirsig’s book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Not SF, but imaginative and contemplative, a far distance from where I stand intellectually, but by a clever fellow-traveler—on a motorcycle, to boot!)

Heinlein lived to be 80 years old, but his output was comparatively meagre for one with so great a reputation and influence. It shows that quantity is no match for quality. His total cast of significant characters, on the other hand, is almost ridiculously extensive. And you know an author’s influence is substantial when there’s a thriving online society dedicated to his legacy.

So that’s how it all started for me, and for that, I suppose, I’m in debt to Heinlein. But deep as my appreciation goes, I will never be considered a “Heinleiner.”

Note: For an exposition of worldview analysis within literature, I recommend James Sire, the book among his many that had the greatest influence on me. When I read it in the late 1970s, the book was called How to Read Slowly: A Christian Guide to Reading with the Mind. It’s now been adjusted to How to Read Slowly: Reading for Comprehension, which doesn’t quite get at the essence of the book, I feel. It’s a book I wish I had written. But I couldn’t have done so when I was 18. Probably still couldn’t.

Judging Mystery Novels by Their Opening Lines


1st edition (Alfred A. Knopf)

1st edition (Alfred A. Knopf) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Two days ago I invited readers to choose one of four mystery novels based on its first line alone. I also challenged readers to identify author and title for each of the opening sentences of the four books. Click here for details.

Here are the opening lines, with title, author and year of publication:

#1: “A blizzard raged on the glacier.” From Operation Napolean, by Arnaldur Indridason (St. Martin’s, 1999).

#2: “Three days before her death, my mother told me—these weren’t her last words, but they were pretty close—that my brother was still alive.” From God for Good, by Harlan Coben (2002).

#3: “God, I hate air travel.” Call No Man Father, by William X. Kienzle (1995).

#4: “When they ask me to become President of the United States I’m going to say, ‘Except for Washington DC.'” Spy Hook, by Len Deighton (1989).

I read these books in the following order:

  • Spy Hook
  • Gone for Good
  • Operation Napolean
  • Call No Man Father

Each has its virtues, but ranking them is easy for me. In descending order of preference, this is my ranking:

  1. Call No Man Father
  2. Operation Napolean
  3. Gone for Good
  4. Spy Hook

Next challenge: match book titles with the main characters in each.

  1. Will Klein
  2. Father Koesler
  3. Kristin
  4. Bernard Samson

Teaching Logic & Critical Thinking to Your Kids


Cover of

Cover of Being Logical: A Guide to Good Thinking

It’s pleasing to know that parents are taking a more proactive role in the education of their children, whether or not they are homeschooling. I’ve been asked if I can recommend tools that could be used to teach children the elements of logic and critical thinking.

  1. My first suggestion is that the best way to teach children how to think critically is to be a visible model of critical thinking. Children have a far greater aptitude for critical thinking than adults credit them for. They tend to be good at inferential reasoning. Their powers are limited in part by their limited storehouse of information from which to make inferences.
  2. Modeling excellence in critical thinking presupposes skill in critical thinking. So parents need to be students of logic and critical thinking themselves. Unfortunately, most have not had the opportunity for formal education in these skills. But there are accessible books to consider. I’ll add a list of recommendations at the end of this post.
  3. If your children see you making the attempt to sharpen your skills in reasoning, this will itself be a good example to them. You can tell them what you’re learning.
  4. Learn the names of basic inferential moves (for example modus ponens, modus tollens) and use these labels with your children when they demonstrate their own ability to make such moves. This should reinforce their awareness of the significance of their mental powers, and affirm them in the use of their powers.
  5. Encourage your children to think about the implications of something they have said or heard. You’ll have to be alert to opportunities for this. But once you’ve been at it for awhile, you’ll get into a natural groove. It will eventually become a part of your routine interaction with your kids. How to do this? I’ll save that for another post sometime.
  6. Get your children reading at their grade level (or above!) books that exemplify and encourage critical thinking. Mystery and suspense novels, carefully selected for their sophistication and interest, can be useful. I read the Hardy Boys as a kid. I also liked the stories of the Sugar Creek Gang.
  7. If you’re home schooling (or not), you can include in the curriculum some materials that teach critical thinking. The Fallacy Detective is a good source for this. (See below.)

Recommendations:

So, here are a few of the many resources available. I’m recommending those that provide a good place to start. Each title is linked to its Amazon page.

Books that inspire parents and other educators to teach children these skills:

Books for self-education in logic and critical thinking:

With adequate preparation in the early years, children in junior high and high school may be ready to work through these books themselves. They don’t provide a complete education in logic, but they are satisfactory for pre-college preparation. For more rigorous study in high school, I recommend using one of two textbooks:

Like most textbooks, Copi and Hurley are pricey. So you may want to settle for a second-hand copy. The illustrations and exposition of old editions will be dated, but the logic will be the same! I shop for second-hand books at AbeBooks.com.

For grade school and up:

Fiction classics for youth:

This post is cross-referenced in an interesting post here.

Related Posts by Doug Geivett:

Page Numbers in Kindle


Cover of "Kindle Wireless Reading Device,...

Cover via Amazon

This week I ordered the new Kindle, upgrading from the original Kindle that I bought a few years ago. My new Kindle arrived in the mail today. I’ve already enjoyed its improved features.

Amazon has recently created a new firmware version that includes several new features. The most welcome feature is the possibility of determining the page numbers in hard copy for the Kindle ebook version of a book you happen to be reading. This is critical to readers like me who write and lecture and need to be able to document references to the reading we site.

There are things to know about this new feature and its availability:

  1. Even my brand new Kindle came with version 3.0.2 of the firmware. This was superseded by 3.0.3. Why my new Kindle is loaded with the older firmware is unclear to me. But more important, my new Kindle should have the very latest firmware—3.1. Why doesn’t it?
  2. Amazon provides a page of instructions about how to upgrade your Kindle firmware to version 3.1. But I found today that the link for downloading the software is not working. So for the time being, I’m not able to upgrade to 3.1. (This may have something to do with the browser I’m using, which is Firefox. I’ll try this download with a different browser later.)
  3. Not every book purchased for Kindle makes use of the page numbers feature.
  4. When you use the page numbers feature with your Kindle, the way to be sure which physical copy it corresponds with is to go to the product detail page for that book at Amazon and scroll down to find a line that gives the “Page Numbers Source ISBN” under the “Product Details” section of the page.

For Amazon’s own information about the page numbers feature on the Kindle, go here and here.

 

“My Daddy Killed Pluto”


 

Buy on Amazon

A year or so ago, I was lecturing in my graduate seminar in epistemology. To illustrate a point, I brought up the recent fate of the ninth planet—Pluto. This was spontaneous. I hadn’t thought about the example before. But I knew that astronomers/astrophysicists had determined that Pluto was not, after all, a planet.

“How was it decided that Pluto was not a planet?” I wondered out loud. One possibility is that our scientists, working with a definite conception of what makes a planet a planet, had discovered that the stellar object we call “Pluto” does not satisfy the conditions for being a planet. Hence, it had to be demoted from planetary status to something else—an “ice ball,” perhaps.

Alternatively, our scientists may have known of Pluto’s properties and recently decided that the concept of a planet should be refined. With a refined conception of planethood, it would turn out that Pluto could no longer be considered a planet.

Which of these is the actual story? Did scientists discover something about Pluto that violated the standard conception of planethood, or did scientists revise their concept of planethood, knowing that Pluto’s claim to planethood would thereby be precluded?

I didn’t know the answer to the question at the time, my knowledge of the demoted status of Pluto being embarrassingly anecdotal. I was less embarrassed, though, when I asked a physicist acquaintance if he knew the answer. He didn’t.

So what is the answer?

Mike Brown, astronomer at the California Institute of Technology, narrates the answer in his recent book How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming. The Amazon page for this book includes “A Letter from Author Mike Brown” that recounts the author’s PR problem with his own daughter. “Daddy,” she said to him, “I know you had to kill Pluto, but will you promise me one thing?” He told her that he would. To find out what she asked him to promise, visit this page.

Related:

 

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