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?

It is well that…


English: W. Somerset Maugham early in his career.

English: W. Somerset Maugham early in his career. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is well that a writer should think not only that the book he himself is writing is important, but that the books other people are writing are important too.

From the Preface to W. Somerset Maugham, A Writer’s Notebook

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.

 

From the Kindle to the iPad?


various e-book readers. From right to left iPa...

Image via Wikipedia

I have a first-generation Kindle and have written about it here before. I bought it when I was about to travel overseas and wanted the convenience of carrying lots of interesting reading without packing any books.

Things have changed pretty dramatically since then. The $400 Kindle of that day has been superseded by the $139 basic Kindle of today. And now there are other models to choose from, featuring 3G and a choice of screen sizes. For details, click here.

Kindle stills rules the world of e-Book technology. But it’s met with vigorous competition. Its greatest competition is the Apple iPad. And the main reason for that is that the iPad is so much more than an e-Book reader.

So I’ve come to the point where I’m tempted to upgrade my Kindle, or else switch over to the iPad. Now’s a good time since Kindle has improved its device, lowered the price point, and garnered my support based on a happy experience. On the other hand, Apple is about to release its iPad 2, and there are rumors of a September release of an iPad 3. (I’ve learned to wait for 2nd-generation products from Apple.) One way or the other, I feel ready to retire my original Kindle—though there’s nothing wrong with it.

If I’ve settled the question of whether to upgrade, I’m not yet settled about which upgrade to go with. I truly like the Kindle and I know I’d like the new versions even better. But what about the iPad? I’m an Apple fan who uses a Powerbook Pro, an iMac, and an iPhone. Why not an iPad, then? It’s far more versatile than a Kindle, and is nearly as compact.

Here’s the best case I can make for sticking with the Kindle and simply upgrading to its latest model:

  1. It has a more attractive price point.
  2. For reading books and documents, the Kindle is still a superior experience. It uses electronic ink technology that is easy on the eyes under all reading conditions.
  3. The iPad is no use for outdoors. The bright natural light washes out the screen. Not so for the Kindle.
  4. The Kindle is very light-weight and compact.
  5. The Kindle battery will hold a charge for an impressive length of time. Not so for the iPad.

Here’s the case for an iPad instead:

  1. For a few more dollars than it costs for the 9-inch Kindle, you get the full versatility of the iPad, with all of its countless apps.
  2. The iPad is good for reading at night, since it’s backlit.
  3. E-books on the iPad can be marked more quickly and conveniently.

Here are the reasons why I lean toward getting both, a new Kindle and the iPad (when it’s been refreshed):

  1. For most reading, I would prefer the Kindle. I do a lot of reading, and I like the convenience of being able to read while on the go. For regular reading that doesn’t require extensive note-taking and highlighting, the kindle is my first choice.
  2. For reading that requires mark-ups, the iPad seems the obvious choice.
  3. While I don’t actually need all the features of an iPad, it would be an improvement over my iPhone for on-the-go email, internet look-ups, working on presentations, etc. I might be able to leave my laptop at home when I travel.
  4. I could justify the added cost of an iPad if Dianne would be interested in using it, too.

The outlay of cash would be greater, of course. So the advantages of a dual approach have to be weighed against the combined price of a new Kindle and an iPad.

But which iPad? If iPad 2 is about to come out in the next few weeks, but an iPad 3 is slated for release as early as September, should I wait it out?

Here are some reasons to jump into the iPad with version 2:

  1. There’s really no telling for sure whether an iPad 3 will come out so soon.
  2. There’s no telling what an iPad 3 will cost if and when it’s released. The iPad 2 is supposed to be priced about like the current iPad.
  3. iPad 2 features may be perfectly adequate for my purposes.
  4. Technology becomes obsolete so quickly that waiting for the iPad 3 probably wouldn’t mean that I would be using a device with a longer shelf life if I waited and got the 3.

Maybe you can help me with this decision. Have you decided between a Kindle and an iPad? How did you make up your mind? Are you happy with your decision? Do you have both? If so, do you use both?

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?

Mysterious Opening Lines: Le Carré, Ludlum, and Others


GIGA Quotes, an online source for quotations, has listed 43 pages of first lines from books, beginning with Merrian-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. This amounts to more than 2300 first-line excerpts from “classical, notable and bestselling books” (here).

First lines interest me. They interest me as an author, and as a reader. Read more of this post

Do You Read Me?


Reading glasses. I didn’t think I’d ever have a use for them, except maybe to burn bugs by focusing the sun’s rays on their exoskeletons.

Today, I own and use several pairs . . . for reading. Read more of this post

The Apologetics of Jesus


What would Jesus do if he was alive on the earth now and facing the skeptics of our day? The same thing he did in the first century. And what was that?

This question is answered with great clarity in the new book by Norman Geisler and Patrick Zukeran—The Apologetics of Jesus: A Caring Approach to Dealing with Doubters.

I want to recommend this book for several reasons: Read more of this post

Sixteen Works of Creative Nonfiction


Here are sixteen works classified as “creative nonfiction” and called “superlatively entertaining and artful” by Michael Dirda, in loose chronological order: Read more of this post

Bearing Books from New England


A week ago I returned from a New England holiday with my family. We journeyed to Maine and New Hampshire in quest of respite from the cacophony of California. We found it. Harbor views, the Maine woods, marine vessels, lobsters, crisp air, and fall leaves.

And I found bookshops—with mountains of second-hand books—ranging from the maximally disheveled to the customary semi-organized to the immaculate (for example, The Old Professor’s Bookshop in Camden, ME). Read more of this post

Speculative Fiction by and for Christians


Twitter led me to a blog called My Friend Amy, where there’s an interesting take on speculative fiction in today’s “Faith ‘n Fiction Saturdays” category. The post addresses several questions:

  1. What is speculative fiction?
  2. What is “Christian speculative fiction”?
  3. What are the standards for high quality Christian speculative fiction?

This short post got me thinking about these and related questions. The result is a longer post sketching some of my thoughts about the general topic.

What Is Speculative about ‘Speculative Fiction’?

My Friend Amy quotes Wikipedia for an answer to this question:

Speculative fiction is a fiction genre speculating about worlds that are unlike the real world in various important ways. In these contexts, it generally overlaps one or more of the following: science fiction, fantasy fiction, horror fiction, supernatural fiction, superhero fiction, utopian and dystopian fiction, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, and alternate history. (Click here for the complete Wikipedia entry for “Speculative fiction.)

The term is of relatively recent vintage. It doesn’t appear in any of the three handbooks I consult for such things:

  • Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia, 4th edition published in 1996. A new edition was published in 2008, and no doubt includes novel entries (no pun intended).
  • The Reader’s Companion to World Literature, 2nd edition published in 1984. This edition was updated in 2002. Of the three books listed here, this is the best value—very affordable and reliable, with excellent coverage of authors, titles, literary movements, historical periods, terms and phrases.
  • Kathleen Morner and Ralph Rausch, From Absurd to Zeitgeist: The Compact Guide to Literary Terms (1997). I believe this book is out of print, but I see that (at the time of this post) one copy is in stock at Powell’s Books.

I once read an essay on speculative fiction that developed a convincing account of the form. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the author or where I came across the item. But I do remember thinking then that “speculative fiction” is an apt label for fiction that explores counterfactuals—ways things might have been but weren’t, or ways things might yet be but won’t. [FN: For more about counterfactuals at this website, “Run Lola Run—A Discussion Guide.”]

The interesting examples of counterfactuals are worlds very close to this, the actual world. “What if, instead of X happening at time t, something else that could easily have happened, Y, had happened at t? How would things have turned out then?” (One serious philosophical problem with speculation of this sort is that the sequel to any counterfactual at time t—the succession of events following Y, for example—may itself vary in numerous counterfactual ways. There may be many ways things might have turned out if Y had happened rather than X at t. And it’s puzzling to think that there is just one way things would have turned out in such a counterfactual setup. But I digress.)

The better fictional depictions of counterexamples would be at least minimally ‘literary.’ And they would explore themes of enduring human interest.

Could a Christian author write speculative fiction? Of course. The author at My Friend Amy’s blog alludes to several. The most obvious examples are ones that are most obviously ‘Christian.’ They broadcast a Christian message so overtly that it cannot be missed. For example, as noted in the blog post over at My Friend Amy, much Christian fiction depicts battles in the spirit world between angels and demons and the role of intercessory prayer by humans caught in the conflict. This kind of speculative fiction will appeal mostly to Christian readers, and then only to a certain kind of Christian reader. They don’t appeal to My Friend Amy for example. [FN: Some Christians, you may be surprised to hear, would argue that many such specimens of fiction are not properly Christian.]

C. S. Lewis and Others

It is interesting to me that C. S. Lewis is not mentioned. In addition to his cherished Narnia series of fantasy novels, Lewis wrote a very sophisticated series of three novels in what might be called the category of ‘space fiction.’ These are Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength. Lewis wrote with subtlty and grace. It’s well-known that he wrote from a Christian worldview. But these novels do not ‘preach.’

Lewis also wrote The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce. These must surely count as paradigm cases of ‘speculative fiction.’ Next time you read them, consider this question: “What sort of ‘what-if’ question is Lewis endeavoring to answer in this book?”

I think that’s the question to put to any book if you want to be sure it counts as ‘speculative fiction.’ This opens the way for ostensive definition of the term. That is, it facilitates understanding of the term ‘speculative fiction’ by pointing to clear cases of it. Two examples that come immediately to mind are Shikasta, by Doris Lessing (1979), and The Children of Men, by P. D. James (1992).

It’s interesting to consider these examples in connection with questions raised by My Friend Amy. My view is that speculative fiction is a particularly congenial form for writing from a distinctive worldview, be it Christian or otherwise. It is congenial in part because it permits experimentation with the implications of a worldview without wearing that worldview on its sleeve. Doris Lessing and P. D. James both write with religious sensibilities—Lessing with the perspective of Sufism, James with a Christian worldview. [FN: Lessing was once offered the honorific title of “Dame” by Queen  of England. Lessing declined the honor. James was created Baroness James of Holland Park in 1991.] The guiding perspective in each case, though often discernible, is subtly layered into the narrative. This is akin to what the great authors Flannery O’Connor and Graham Greene accomplished in their more ‘realist fiction.’ [FN: See for example, and the short stories of Flannery O’Connor, and The End of the Affair, by Graham Greene.]

For many readers of this post, the film adaptation of The Children of Men will be better known than the book. While watching the first few scenes, I thought about how this darkly apocalyptic film might render the religious component of the human condition when humanity is faced with extinction. My guess was that it would represent society as completely secular, and that any portrayal of religious people would characterize them as the kind who stand on street corners warning passersby of imminent divine judgment, in a tone that betrays their conviction that ‘none who hear will convert, and it’s just as well anyway, since they deserve to go to hell.’ That pretty much is how religion was ‘treated’ in the film.

That last statement needs qualification. What I should say is that religion, imagined under the conditions described in the film, is presented a certain way. This may be a commentary on how religion is manifest in the world today. But it’s pretty striking that no one I would call a ‘serious believer’ shows up in the movie. I imagine they don’t exist, or, if they do, they are marginally significant to the storyline. But then what would account for their nonexistence? Or what would explain their insignificance to the unfolding story? It is precisely the apocalyptic character of the story that makes their absence conspicuous. And that is interesting.

So a film or a novel may have something to say about religion even when it makes no direct reference to anything explicitly religious.

Vampires

The Amy post also asks whether fiction featuring vampires might be a venue for developing Christian themes. I’ve thought about this myself. That would be an excellent question for Anne Rice, the bestselling author of vampire fiction, and an adult convert to Christianity. Books in her newer series based on the gospel narratives has not been quite as successful as Interview with the Vampire. They are, to be sure, friendly presentations of the life and influence of Jesus. I suspect they have generated a new set of fans.

Susan Howatch

Another contemporary author known for her Christian worldview is Susan Howatch. Also a bestselling author (and British), Howatch composes stories with a realist cast. They take place in our world, you might say. See, for example, her acclaimed series beginning with the novel Glittering Images. One of her best is The High Flyer, which can be recommended to any reader with a taste for literary fiction set in the contemporary context.

* * *

A blog permits the expression of random thoughts during idle moments. I’ve exploited that opportunity here. As often happens, the flood of thoughts swelled to the point of necessary expression because of a bit of reading. This time I happened to be reading another blogger who reads.

Thank you, Amy my friend—whoever you are.

Related Posts by Doug Geivett:

Teach Yourself Epistemology


Epistemology is the branch of philosophy devoted especially to study of the concepts of knowledge and justified belief. The name for this discipline, epistemology, comes from the Greek word episteme, signifying “knowledge.” This is why epistemology is sometimes called “the theory of knowledge.” Unfortunately, this designation leads to a truncated view of a complex subject matter ranging over a wide variety of issues having to do with the status of belief.

The study of epistemology is notoriously difficult. It is also difficult to teach. Most university professors in the Anglo-American analytic tradition present the subject as a series of problem-solving ventures. The most persistent theories addressing these problems are presented and compared. Sometimes the teacher favors a general approach in epistemology and gives special attention to explaining and defending that approach and spelling out its implications.

One of the great problems of epistemology is how to think about the subject matter. This is the most fundamental problem for the enterprise of epistemology (which I distinguish from the enterprise of knowing and responsible believing). And yet this problem is often passed over, not only in the classroom, but by epistemologists in their own systematic work.

In my view, this places the student at risk. The student new to epistemology is liable to learn epistemology second-hand, taking as given the various problems and their proposed solutions, arranged in whatever order suits the professor or textbook writer. One very common approach is to begin with the threat of skepticism, which hangs as an ominous spectre over the whole enterprise—and is perhaps never completely exorcised.

A proper approach to “doing epistemology” would have to be delineated with great care and in more space than I have here. But there is a sense in which the self-educated have an advantage when coming to this subject matter. They are more likely to embark upon the enterprise of epistemology with that sense of wonder that is characteristically Aristotelian. In this case, the wonder is that we are capable of knowing so many things in such diverse areas of investigation, and that we move confidently through the world believing much that we do not know or would claim to know.

Still, the student needs a guide to such a complex subject. And while no text can serve in place of careful reflection on aspects of knowing and believing as they present themselves, there are a few very good books to guide the student and prompt examination of long-standing issues in epistemology.

In my own teaching, I have favored three books on the subject:

These books complement each other nicely. The book by Robert Audi will require a tutor for most who are new to the subject. It is rich and comprehensive, and, most important, very sensible about the topics it addresses. Better than any other book I know of, this book presents the subject in a natural order that is conducive to proper progress through to thorny issues it addresses.

To anchor a course in epistemology, I’ve found that the books by Feldman and Bon Jour complement each other neatly. They are concise and readable surveys of major topics. Laurence Bon Jour adopts a method of presentation that he explains clearly at the outset. While I think the method he adopts is unfortunate, it does give readers a sense of the rootedness of trends in contemporary epistemology in the influential work of the great 17th-century philosopher René Descartes. Of special value is Bon Jour’s treatment of the contest between foundationalists and coherentists in epistemology. A convert from coherentism to foundationalism, Bon Jour excels in his exposition of this debate; yet he is also realistic about the persistent philosophical challenges raised by foundationalism.

Richard Feldman demonstrates the exacting technique of analytic philosophy in a way that is accessible and interesting to newcomers. His book is a pleasure to recommend for that reason alone. But it is strong in many other respects. Feldman selects only the most fundamental issues in epistemology, and his book is a natural choice for someone with my anti-skeptical predilections for foundationalism and internalism in epistemology. His juxtaposition of evidentialism on the one hand and internalism and externalism on the other hand is initially puzzling. The presentation of evidentialism is a model of exposition at the introductory level.

Neither Feldman nor Bon Jour does justice to the problems associated with sensory perception. This large area of study in epistemology is set aside by Feldman, perhaps in the interests of conserving space. I think the decision to postpone consideration of the theory of perception can be defended. Feldman simply ignores the topic. Bon Jour, on the other hand, takes pains to explore the theory of perception. He defends a position called indirect or representative realism. As a direct realist, I believe this is a mistake. The presentation is well-organized and focused. And, in my judgment, Bon Jour’s development and defense of indirect realism creates opportunities to indicate significant problems for his position, which is part of any thorough defense of direct realism.

Several other books make useful companions to the ones I’ve recommended above:

The student also needs a collection, or anthology, of readings in epistemology. The best anthologies include selections from influential thinkers going back to Plato, as well as seminal essays by more recent philosophers. Among the best are:

Epistemology, like all professional philosophy, is “trendy.” The serious student of the discipline must understand these trends, even at the risk of being misled about their importance or being distracted from the real business of epistemology. The books I’ve described and recommended here contribute greatly to that task.

Postscript

While I strongly recommend the books by Rober Audi, Richard Feldman, and Laurence Bon Jour as places to begin the systematic study of contemporary analytic epistemology, several other introductory texts make excellent ancillary reading:

A Plan for the Study of Epistemology

  1. Read the three introductory texts recommended at the beginning, by Robert Audi, Richard Feldman, and Bon Jour. Sketch a plan to read them simultaneously, following the topical sequence in Audi.
  2. Read a sample of classic and contemporary essays from one of the anthologies listed above. Read according to interest and accessibility and note those authors who are mentioned in Audi, Feldman, and Bon Jour. Follow the order of coverage by topic in your reading of Audi and the others.
  3. Use Jonathan Dancy’s Companion to Epistemology as a quick reference on sundry topics in epistemology.
  4. Consult the other companion volumes for more detail and discussion.
  5. Survey several other introductions listed in the Postscript above. Especially deserving of careful study are Chisholm, Lehrer, and Pollock.
  6. Begin reading on topics of special interest to you, in books and essays that focus especially on those topics.
  7. Think about issues in meta-epistemology, or the study of the proper study of epistemology. On this topic I especially recommend Chisholm, Theory of Knowledge (already listed) and his essay on “The Problem of the Criterion,” George Chatalian, Epistemology and Skepticism: An Enquiry into the Nature of Epistemology, and P. Coffey, Epistemology, or the Theory of Knowledge (1917).
  8. For a realist approach to epistemology, I suggest reading seminal essays by the so-called “New Realists” in 20-century American philosophy.

“Batman and Friends”: A Discussion Guide


morrissuperheroes-and-philosophyTom Morris and Matt Morris are the editors of a a book called Superheroes and Philosophy: Truth, Justice, and the Socratic Way (Open Court 2005). Matt’s own chapter (pages 102-117) is titled “Batman and Friends: Aristotle and the Dark Knight’s Inner Circle.” I created this discussion guide, based on Matt’s chapter, for my course on Faith, Film and Philosophy.

Read pages 102-105 and answer questions (1) through (4):

  1. What explains the main title of this essay, “Batman and Friends”?
  2. Morris writes that “Batman is often thought of as the most solitary superhero.” Do you agree with this assessment? How does this set things up for the main theme of Morris’s chapter?
  3. The chapter sketches Aristotle’s three-fold analysis of friendship as developed in the Nichomachean Ethics. What three types of friendship does Aristotle describe? What is your assessment of Aristotle’s analysis? Is it plausible? Is it comprehensive? Do you have friendships of each kind?
  4. Morris uses the Aristotelian analysis of friendship as a template for studying Batman’s closest relationships. Before reading Morris’s discussion of Batman’s relationships, write down your own thoughts about Batman’s relationships. What are his primary relationships? How would you describe each relationship in terms of Aristotle’s three-fold analysis of friendship?

aristotleRead pages 105-115 and answer these questions:

  1. Which of Batman’s relationships does Morris consider in terms of the Aristotelian account of friendship? How does Morris classify each relationship? Do you agree with his classification? If you disagree, explain.
  2. Is there anyone else who is closely related to Batman who is not considered by Morris in this essay? If so, identify the person or people you’re thinking of. What does Aristotle’s analysis of friendship imply about the relationship(s) you have in mind?
  3. What is Morris’s primary thesis in this essay? What is your evaluation of Morris’s thesis?

Now read pages 115-117 and answer the following questions:

  1. In this section of his essay, Morris writes about the “elusiveness” of a certain kind of friendship. How does he explain this elusiveness in Batman’s case? Do you agree that Batman is incapable of this kind of friendship? Explain your answer.
  2. If you’ve seen one or both of the most recent Batman movies, Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008), what features of these films support or conflict with Morris’s analysis of Batman’s friendships?posterbatman-beginsthe_dark_knight_poster
  3. Who has more or less authentic relationships with others, Batman or Bruce Wayne? Explain your answer.
  4. Would it ever be possible for Batman to have the kind of friendship that Aristotle admires most? Explain your answer.
  5. Morris identifies three things that can happen when we “philosophically address art, whether it’s a novel, a comic, a painting, or a film” (see pp. 116-17). What are these three things? What does Morris say is the most important contribution philosophical analysis of art can make? Do you believe that philosophy can play this role? In his use of philosophy to analyze Batman’s character and relationships, does Morris succeed in showing that philosophy can make this kind of contribution?
  6. Morris concludes with an admonition. Think about your own ambitions and sense of calling. If you were to follow Morris’s admonition, what would it mean for you? Be as specific as possible. Does Morris’s counsel seem like good advice to you? Explain your answer.

Copyright © 2009 by R. Douglas Geivett

Be Still and Know that I Am an Artist


Margaret Atwood tells a joke:

The Devil comes to the writer and says, “I will make you the best writer of your generation. Never mind generation—of this century. No—this millennium! Not only the best, but the most famous, and also the richest; in addition to that, you will be very influential and your glory will endure for ever. All you have to do is sell me your grandmother, your mother, your wife, your kids, your dog and your soul.”

“Sure,” says the writer, “Absolutely—give me the pen, where do I sign?” Then he hesitates. “Just a minute,” he says. “What’s the catch?”

Atwood uses this fictional exchange to explore “the problem of moral and social responsibility in relation to the content of a work of art.” The passage appears in chapter four of her 2002 book Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing. I’m still in chapter three, but I skipped ahead.

Negotiating with the Dead is a literary essay on the writer as artist. At least, that’s true of the half I’ve read so far. Chapter 3, titled “The Great God Pen,” traces the Art Wars generally, and the world of poetry and fiction as a theatre of war in particular. And she examines an interesting argument—strictly syllogistic, mind you—that “we should devote ourselves to beauty-worship.” An unexpected but crucial premise in this argument is Jesus’ declaration, “The truth shall make you free.”

The interesting story here is that art has displaced religion in a secular society. Atwood isn’t all that explicit about this. But what she says is suggestive. Her chapter begins with clichéd questions about literary worth and money. Since writers are warned against unrealistic expectations of monetary gain, they must come to grips with deeper incentives. One possibility commends “the social usefulness of art.” But writers beguiled by this idyllic motive are victims of censorship, often inflicted by themselves. “Thus, the heroes of Art became those who were willing, as they say, to push the envelope.”

In due course, this pushed artists in the direction of a “pure aesthetic” that pitted art against moral purpose. The upshot, in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, is that beauty, rather like God, “is its own excuse for being.”

Oscar Wilde drew out religious parallels with art that imitate the language of Christianity, says Atwood. In his preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray Wilde wrote, “No artist has ethical sympathies.” He added, “Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope. They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only Beauty.”

The artist is a high priest of the imagination. But this does not require scruples. When it comes to Art, some get it and some don’t. Art for art’s sake is non-utilitarian. It disdains mammon and turns a blind eye to social responsibility. For a writer of this persuasion, there is no accountability. The only ultimate is the instinct of the artist.

Atwood explores this theme without committing herself to its creed. But she does seem to think that there are only two other motives for writing. They are writing for monetary gain and writing to fulfill a social responsibility of one sort or another.

***

Atwood is probably best known for her novel The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), depicting an apocalyptic future with the world’s women in subjection to a theocracy run by fanatical devotees of the Bible. The film adaptation appeared in 1990, starring Faye Dunnaway, Natasha Richardson, and Robert Duvall.

Kindle Your Reading Habits


The Kindle is a thin, book-sized reading device that holds innumerable e-books and other digital reading material that can be downloaded in an instant using wireless technology almost anywhere in the U.S. Wow! Amazon boasts a Kindle library of over 160,000 items. And the inventory continues to grow.

The Kindle came out fall 2007. My gadget-guy instincts kicked in immediately. But I held off buying. I thought the price might go down (it did), that the wait period for it to come in the mail would shorten (it did), and that my “need” for a Kindle would increase (it did).

I ordered my Kindle from Amazon in March so I would have it in time for my trip to Europe in May. It’s the only thing I took for reading material during my trip. And it’s one of the reasons why I was able to travel extremely light using carry-on baggage only.

So now I can get my reading fix no matter where I happen to be. And if I just want to read today’s issue of The New York Times, or I don’t have a book that suits my mood, I can download what I want no matter where I am. The technology is wireless.

A few years ago, I read The Gutenberg Elegies, by Sven Birkerts. Like Birkerts, I believe it would be a tragedy if books—I mean real books—became a thing of the past because they all went digital. I’m a hardcore advocate for having a houseful of books. To me, books—books on shelves, books in piles—are the ultimate in home decorating options. Books speak to me even when I’m not reading. There’s nothing quite like being in the presence of books.

Still, I welcome the arrival of the digital version of reading material. While an e-book can’t replace the role of a real book, there are things it can do for readers that the traditional book can’t. And Kindle is the way to go in this arena.

Here are seven of the main reasons why I now own and use a Kindle:

  1. I can go anywhere and read what I want while I wait.
  2. I can go anywhere in the U.S. and download books for instant reading.
  3. I can subscribe to newspapers and magazines without having them pile up around the house.
  4. I can pack light when I travel and still bring a huge library with me.
  5. I save space on my shelves for physical copies of books I really must have.
  6. I save money when I order books for my Kindle.
  7. It’s the easiest way to read in bed.

The Kindle is the perfect complement to my other hobbies. I can fit a whole library in the saddle on my motorcycle, or carry it in a small book bag on my back. The Kindle goes with me when I’m kayak touring. Traveling is a greater pleasure now that I can haul all the books I want on my Kindle. I can practice foreign languages as long as I have the right tools on my Kindle.

Yes, I can mark my Kindle books, bookmark them, and take unlimited notes that are linked to specific passages in them.

Then there’s the cool factor. A woman and her daughter saw me reading on my Kindle at a Starbucks; seeing mine convinced them to get one for themselves. On a recent trip to Europe, nearby passengers asked about it. On the train between Stuttgart and Zurich an engineering student who had never heard of the Kindle decided within a few minutes that he had to have one.

***

For Discussion:

  • Had you heard of the Kindle before now?
  • Are you interested in becoming a Kindle user?
  • Are you a Kindle user?
  • If so, what would you say are the best reasons to have a Kindle?
  • What are some of the things you’ve downloaded to your Kindle?
  • What is your evaluation of the Kindle?

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