Archive for the ‘Reading’ Category

Context determines the meaning of every utterance, and every word of every utterance. Because we exist in time, the context that determines the meaning of every utterance and every word is constantly expanding. Each moment there is more context. What I said yesterday will be understood not only in its original context but also in the context of the events of today. “I am not a crook,” said Richard Nixon, but subsequent events convinced many Americans that he was indeed a crook, and the subsequent events now set the context for the original statement. The ultimate meaning of any utterance is deferred until history is done, until the last word is spoken, until context is closed off once and for all.

But what if that never happens? What if context determines meaning, and context keeps expanding indefinitely, forever and ever without closure, without a last word, without a final judgment, age after age, amen? This is Derrida’s view, and he uses explicitly theological language to confess what he disbelieves. He rejects eschatology, any hope that there will be “messianic” finale to human history.39 Context will expand forever, and therefore meaning, which arises from difference, will be deferred forever. We can never know in fullness what our texts or utterances mean, much less the texts produced by another, because we can’t know how the future context, and future texts, might affect the meaning of what we write and say.

This is Derrida’s concept of differance, which he punningly spells with an a rather than an e to capture the twin notions of “difference” and “deferral.” Meaning arises from difference, but precisely for that reason, meaning is endlessly deferred.

— Peter Leithart, Solomon among the Postmoderns 

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As for language, the philosophes might remind us that the written word and an oratory based upon it have a content—a semantic, paraphrasable content. Whenever language is the principal medium of communication—especially language controlled by the rigors of print—an idea, a fact, a claim is the inevitable result. The idea may be banal, the fact irrelevant, the claim false, but there is no escape from meaning when language is the instrument guiding one’s thought. Though one may accomplish it from time to time, it is very hard to say nothing when employing a written sentence. What else is exposition good for? Words have very little to recommend them except as carriers of meaning. The shapes of written words are not especially interesting to look at. Even the sounds of sentences of spoken words are rarely engaging except when composed by those with extraordinary poetic gifts. If a sentence refuses to issue forth a fact, a request, a question, an assertion, an explanation, it is nonsense, a mere grammatical shell. As a consequence, a language-centered discourse such as was characteristic of eighteenthand nineteenth-century America tends to be both content-laden and serious, all the more so when it takes its form from print.

It is serious because meaning demands to be understood. A printed sentence calls upon its author to say something, upon its reader to know the import of what is said. And when an author and reader are struggling with semantic meaning, they are engaged in the most serious challenge to the intellect. This is especially the case with the act of reading, for authors are not always trustworthy. They lie, they become confused, they over-generalize, they abuse logic and, sometimes, common sense. The reader must come armed, in a serious state of intellectual readiness. This is not easy because the reader comes to the text alone. In reading, one’s responses are isolated, one’s intellect thrown back on its own resources. To be confronted by the cold abstractions of printed sentences is to look upon language bare, without the assistance of either beauty or community. Thus, reading is by its nature a serious business.

— Neil Postman, Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future

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To say it simply, newspapers should, for a start, get out of the information business and into the knowledge business. What do I mean by “knowledge”? I define knowledge as organized information—information that is embedded in some context; information that has a purpose, that leads one to seek further information in order to understand something about the world. Without organized information, we may know something of the world, but very little about it. When one has knowledge, one knows how to make sense of information, knows how to relate information to one’s life, and, especially, knows when information is irrelevant.

It is fairly obvious that some newspaper editors are aware of the distinction between information and knowledge, but not nearly enough of them. There are newspapers whose editors do not yet grasp that in a technological world, information is a problem, not a solution. They will tell us of things we already know about and will give little or no space to providing a sense of context or coherence. Let us suppose, for example, that a fourteen-year-old Palestinian boy hurls a Molotov cocktail at two eighteen-year-old Israeli soldiers in Jerusalem. The explosion knocks one of the soldiers down and damages his left eye. The other soldier, terrified, fires a shot at the Palestinian that kills him instantly. The injured soldier loses the sight of his eye. All of this we learn of on television or from radio; the next day we are told about it again in the newspaper. Why? The newspaper will add nothing, unless it can tell something about the meaning of the event, including why this event is in the newspaper at all. There are at least forty wars presently going on someplace in the world, and we can assume that young people are being killed in all of them. Why do I need to know about this event? Why is what happens in Jerusalem more important than what happens in Ghana? Will this event in Jerusalem have an effect on other events? Is this something that has happened many times before? Is it likely to happen again? Is someone to blame for what happened there? In this context, what do we mean by “blame”?

A newspaper that does not answer these questions is useless. It is worse than useless. It contributes incoherence and confusion to minds that are already overloaded with information. After all, the next day someone will be killed in Bosnia, and the day after that, in Indonesia, and the day after that, someplace else. So what? If I were asked to say what is the worst thing about television news or radio news, I would say that it is just this: that there is no reason offered for why the information is there; no background; no connectedness to anything else; no point of view; no sense of what the audience is supposed to do with the information. It is as if the word “because” is entirely absent from the grammar of broadcast journalism. We are presented with a world of “and”s, not “because”s. This happened, and then this happened, and then something else happened. As things stand now, at least in America, television and radio are media for information junkies, not for people interested in “because”s. I might pause here to remark that it is one of the most crucial functions of social institutions—the church, the courts, the schools, political parties, families—to provide us with the “because”s; that is, help us to know why information is important or irrelevant, socially acceptable or blasphemous, conventional or weird, even true or false. Some of these institutions do not do this work with as much conviction as they once did, which makes it especially necessary that a knowledge medium be available. And there is no more fundamental requirement of a knowledge medium than that it make clear why we are being given information. If we do not know that, we know nothing worth knowing. But there is something else the newspapers must do for us in a technological age, and it has to do with the word “wisdom.” I wish to suggest that it is time for newspapers to begin thinking of themselves as being not merely in the knowledge business but in the wisdom business as well.

— Neil Postman, Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future

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“Don’t Go Into the Library” by Alberto Ríos


The library is dangerous—

Don’t go in. If you do


You know what will happen.

It’s like a pet store or a bakery—


Every single time you’ll come out of there

Holding something in your arms.


Those novels with their big eyes.

And those no-nonsense, all muscle


Greyhounds and Dobermans,

All non-fiction and business,


Cuddly when they’re young,

But then the first page is turned.


The doughnut scent of it all, knowledge,

The aroma of coffee being made


In all those books, something for everyone,

The deli offerings of civilization itself.


The library is the book of books,

Its concrete and wood and glass covers


Keeping within them the very big,

Very long story of everything.


The library is dangerous, full

Of answers. If you go inside,


You may not come out

The same person who went in.


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Here’s a passage from an essay in the Guardian about the decline of e-books and the revival of the book’s fortunes:

Another thing that has happened is that books have become celebrated again as objects of beauty. They are coveted in their own right, while ebooks, which are not things of beauty, have become more expensive; a new digital fiction release is often only a pound or two cheaper than a hardback…. “The physical book had become quite a cheap and tacky thing at the turn of the millennium,” [James] Daunt [of Waterstone’s] says. Publishers “cut back on the quality of the paper, so if you left a book in the sun it went yellow. They were gluing, not sewing. They would put a cover on a hardback but not do anything with the hard case underneath. Nowadays, if you take a cover off, there is likely to be something interesting underneath it.”

And that something interesting is likely to gain traction on #bookstagram, a celebration of the aesthetics of books, where books are the supermodels and where readers and non-readers can see cats and dogs reading books, books photographed in landscapes, books posed with croissants, sprays of flowers, homeware, gravestones and cups of coffee, colour-matched and colour-clashed with outfits, shoes, biscuits and in what can only be described as book fashion shoots. You just can’t do a shelfie with an e-reader.
Got that? Now look at this:

Argentine artist Marta Minujín is creating a large-scale artwork called The Parthenon of Books that will be constructed on Friedrichsplatz in Kassel, Germany, and will be constructed from as many as 100,000 banned books from all over the world.

The location has been chosen for its historical importance. In 1933, the Nazis burned two-thousand books there during the so-called “Aktion wider den undeutschen Geist” (Campaign against the Un-German Spirit), destroying books by Communists, Jews, and pacifists, along with any others deemed un-German.

When it comes to materials, she using a list of 100,000 books that have been, or still are, banned in countries across the world, going all the way back to the year 1500.

As John Overholt commented on Twitter, “It’s very dramatic but I’m not sure that’s the most effective use of 100,000 books.”

What both stories illustrate is a curious recent movement to transform books into fetishes. They are to be touched, smelled, lovingly photographed, made into art, laden with immense and complex symbolic value. Is there anything that people don’t do with them? I can think of one thing.

I wonder if we could be headed for a division — or an intensification of a division that already exists — between people who love books and people who love reading. I imagine a house filled with beautiful books, books lining walls, books displayed with apparently careless elegance on tables, in which the only actual reading is being done by a child with a beat-up discarded Kindle who has learned how to download from Project Gutenberg.

Alan Jacobs

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It’s January–the season for new year’s resolutions.

Last January, I decided to start using the Goodreads app as a means of logging what books I’d read or listened to. The app suggested that I take up the 2016 Reading Challenge. Being in the resolute spirit, I decided to try it. I set a goal for how many books I wanted to read, and the app dutifully reminded me of my goal and provided reinforcing applause or encouraging reminders as my progress (or lack of it) required. It served its purpose. I achieved my goal and felt the attendant satisfaction.

A reading challenge seems to be a common thing. I’ve encountered several friends who have specific annual reading goals. However, I’ve noted that, like the Goodreads Reading Challenge, these are usually framed as, “In 2017, I will read X number of books.” Although this seems natural and certainly seems to be the most common framing, my 2016 reading experience awakened me to several of its shortcomings.

When one’s reading goals become about consuming a particular number of books, it can tend to have several, I think, unfortunate downstream consequences.

  • When one becomes  preoccupied with the sheer number of books, it’s easy to focus less on the primary goals of reading: “to instruct and/or to delight.” It becomes less about learning and retaining, less about relishing and savouring, and more about speed to facilitate mass consumption. (Recall Alan Jacobs’ comments on the virtues of slow reading.)
  • To achieve the goal of reading X number of books, one tends to steer away from long books, gravitating instead to slim volumes. Now, a book’s merit is certainly not proportional to its length; however, there are many good and worthwhile books that are unavoidably long. Because of the framing of my Reading Challenge, I was less likely to engage long books. Whether it was an important but disconcertingly long book of non-fiction, or a lengthy novel that I may have otherwise wanted to read, I often shied away from them.
  • One often finishes a book to realize that you’ve just skimmed the surface, just toed the edge of the water, and that such a work requires a re-reading and more meaningful engagement to explore the vastness that you didn’t encounter on your initial voyage. Again, recall Alan Jacob’s admonition that “a first encounter with a worthwhile book is never a complete encounter.” Reading plans based on reading a certain number of books discourages re-reading as it takes away precious time from achieving the next milestone towards the goal.

So, while I think that reading goals are well-intentioned and probably helpful, I propose a different framing of the goal:

“In 2017, I will engage in X minutes of meaningful reading every day.”

Perhaps this will provide the needed nudging to making reading a regular part of one’s life but will also help avoid the pitfalls of the traditional framework.

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To [those] who have … concerns  [about not reading fast enough] I recommend a story by one of the all-time great weirdos of American literature, R. A. Lafferty. The story is called “Primary Education of the Camiroi,” and it concerns a PTA delegation from Dubuque who visit another planet to investigate their educational methods. After one little boy crashes into a member of the delegation, knocking her down and breaking her glasses, and then immediately grinds new lenses for her and repairs the spectacles — a disconcerting experience for the Iowans — they interview one girl and ask her how fast she reads. She replies that she reads 120 words per minute. One of the Iowans proudly comments that she knows students of the same age in Dubuque who read five hundred words per minute.

“When I began disciplined reading, I was reading at a rate of four thousand words a minute,” the girl said. They had quite a time correcting me of it. I had to take remedial reading, and my parents were ashamed of me. Now I’ve learned to read almost slow enough.”

Slow enough, that is, to remember verbatim everything she has read. “We on Camiroi,” one of the adults says, “are only a little more intelligent than you on Earth. We cannot afford to waste time on forgetting or reviewing, or pursuing anything of a shallowness that lends itself to scanning.”

So maybe what matters most is not how many books we read, but how thoroughly we read them. Just something to think about.

Alan Jacobs

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