Sympathists

Posts Tagged ‘Reading’

Statement of Intent and Concern: Part III

In Reading, Sociology on June 28, 2009 at 9:57 pm

DSCF4470Matthew Thomas, Kyoto

Concern and Intent #III: System Building

Everything’s connected.  Reading the classics, which do not talk about sunsets, has made many sunsets, in all their colors, intelligible to me.

Fernando Pessoa

I’m behind in my reading.  Stacked in front of me at my desk are the following: Ted Solotaroff’s The Literary Community, Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism, Kate Buford’s Burt Lancaster, Pierre Bourdieu’s Sketch for Self Analysis, Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, Berger and Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality, Edward Said’s Representations of the Intellectual, Gay Talese’s Thy Neighbors Wife, Rory Stewart’s The Places in Between, Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory’s My Dinner with Andre, John Cheever’s collected stories, and Elias Canneti’s Crowds and Power.  As if this was not enough, today I checked out Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents, Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism, and Robert Service’s Lenin.  I have also set aside for now, but need to get back to: Francois Cusset’s French Theory, Peter Drucker’s Management, Marx’s Capital, and Seth Lloyd’s Programming the Universe. All of these books are crucial and must be attended to at once.  Moreover, all of these books are connected–and taken in their totality they will add up to something greater than the sum of their parts.  In fact, when incorporated with another hundred or so abandoned books to which I will shortly return, they will help constitute a system through which the universe and all contained in it shall be read.

Or so I tell myself.  I used to finish books in a single sitting; no longer.  According to my reading list for 2009, I have started 36 books and finished only 13 of these.  The remaining 23 range from the nearly finished (Solotaroff and Said) to the barely begun (Lloyd and Talese), but they all have one thing in common–I cannot truly move on with my life and work before these are completed, noted, and blogged about.  Herein the pathology.  In the year 2001 I began a master’s thesis.  The topic was supposed to be Japanese collective memory of the Second World War.  A big topic, surely, but not, perhaps, one which I could not wrap my arms around, even in the artificially constricted form of a thesis (my adviser told me 100, and not more than 120, pages).  220 rough pages later, having encompassed not only the topic directly at hand, but also Aristotle and Augustine, Occam and Kant, Weber and Wittgenstein, sociology and statistics, and a short history of the concept of free will, I foundered.  The thesis ran aground not from lack of something to say, but from a lack of ability to encapsulate and select–all this material seemed deeply relevant, indispensable in fact, but it wasn’t helping me finish the damn thing.

Evitar Zerubavel, in his highly sensible The Clockwork Muse, presents a compelling argument for just getting on with it.  Arguing for a “deromanticization of the writing process” (4), Zerubavel writes that “the problem, unfortunately, is that we often have difficulty letting go of our projects and bringing them to completion {…}  Such perfectionism (also expressed in the compulsive urge to read everything possibly related to our project) may lead us to keep spinning our intellectual wheels and work on the same project indefinitely” (87-88). Zerubavel recommends a micro-managed writing schedule–the “clockwork muse” in fact, whereby we forget about the idea of writing when inspired and instead write on a strict schedule.  “The very notion of a ‘clockwork muse’ may sound somewhat oxymoronic at first given the way we normally associate creativity with spontaneity.  It certainly goes against our traditional romantic image of a writer as someone who forgoes structure in order to accommodate essentially unscheduled outbursts of creative energy.  Yet only those who develop a certain amount of self-discipline actually end up completing theses, dissertations, and books” (98).

Uh huh.  And if one is afflicted by a “compulsive urge to read everything possibly related to our project” when at the same time being categorizable as one who’s passion in life is “theoretical” {as outlined by Eduard Spranger, someone in the grips of the theoretical passion “essentially likes to know that they have explained things better than they have been explained before” (Snyder, 132)}, the scope of necessary reading can reach outstanding proportions.   What I need is a clockwork system for my reading, and then the ability to draw some worthwhile lines.  But then, I just don’t seem cut out for this kind of efficiency.  Three things occur to me: Continue Reading

Collected Rants

In Classicism, Ranting on May 14, 2009 at 9:21 pm

147257~The-Reader-1856-Posters

Editor’s Note: In the interest of post-consolidation, and as a means of putting off having to write something new, we are consolidating several shorter posts into a handful of longer ones.  This post collects three rants, and are arranged in the order in which they were posted.  Puritano’s was not originally labeled a rant, but we detected the seeds of hysteria therein, and so it was designated.

“On the Classics, a Rant”
Dean Williams, Kyoto

When science arrives it expels literature.

Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson

In science, read by preference, the newest works; in literature, the oldest.

Edward George Bulwer-Lytton

Note: The italicized unattributed quotations are from Shakespeare.

I.

Take counsel of some wiser head.

I wish to speak to my brothers and sisters, my fellow seekers. The others, fortunate souls, may leave the hall. Don’t go far though, I’ll be wanting to speak to you soon. Thank you.

Now we’re alone and may talk candidly, with ruthless honesty, as only family members may with each other. Before I talk to them, I wanted to ask you a question of a private nature.

You, addict, reader. Why do you do it? You have spent oceans of time on an activity that has brought you…what? What great gift, what life advantage have your countless hours poring over books brought you? Economists speak of “opportunity costs”, the hidden price we pay for a transaction that takes resources away from some other possible investment that we could have engaged in had we not chosen the one we did. You have paid a price for your years bent over the page, depend upon it, fellow-sufferers. You could have learned a language or two, become proficient enough in computers to earn a living, saved thousands of dollars on books many of which you have not and will never read. I ask you again, what have you gained?

Knowledge? The others, the lucky ones I asked to leave…have they not profited enough from their more casual gleanings, are they not able to take part competently in discussions of literature, symposia on historical questions, all the myriad forms of financial, intellectual and personal communication? Do they not know things? This, even though they do not believe, are not committed, do not, when asked the simple question, “Is knowledge the most important thing of all to you”, respond gloomily, “Yes…” but cheerily retort, “No, living is the most important thing to me. I use knowledge to live better.” They sip the wine, they do not tilt the bottle up and drain it; they smoke a joint or two, they do not have track marks on their arms. They acquire knowledge to live better lives. Oh, how I despise them. The faithful parishioner, back bent and eyes rheumy, hands shaking as he lights the candle in the church which he has faithfully visited all these years, how does he feel when architectural enthusiasts come in for a few minutes to ooh and aah over the stained glass and the icons before trotting out to lunch. Does he smile when they drop a coin or two in the collection box? Does he pity them, the unbelievers, the casual enthusiasts? Or does he envy them?

One could go on, one could mention the considerable and historic disjuncture between knowledge and power or financial rewards or fame. Truman said, “The world is run by C students.” This has always been true, perhaps it will always be true. My purpose here is not to whine, it is simply to remind you before we go on the stage, before I call them back in, that this is a fight; no, it is a war, and one with real consequences.  Who and what should our young learn about? Should some forms of knowledge be privileged over others? And what should we as human beings know? Or,  Kant’s fundamental questions:

1) What can I know?

2) What ought I to do?

3) For what may I hope?

4) What is a human being?

In 2009 the educational professional or government official (may they burn, writhing in the flames of hell) would say the first two questions are ‘curricular  or educational policy issues’ and Kant’s questions are ‘abstract philosophy’ or ‘navel-gazing’ or something worse. I say they are mechanics, unimaginative, narrow-minded and short-sighted functionaries who are responsible for most of the ills of this world.

Of course you, in your messy and wonderful way, have been struggling with these…can I really call them..questions—for a long time. You didn’t always know why, you didn’t have even a semblance of a plan, but that’s what you have been doing. And you are not alone, oh no. You are not many, but there are others out there. On an even more personal note, may I tell you that my favorite family members are the ones still “in the closet.” That is, they think they are learning because they are in some formal academic program or “just like to read.” But you are as different from those others as “Firmament from Fin.” (Dickinson) The intellectual fashion of the times is uncomfortable with elitism, especially of the intellectual variety. And so I do not blame you for cringing a bit when I speak of this way, or even when you think to yourself, “He still thinks individuals call the shots, how quaint.” It is true,

I am no wiser than a daw.

But it is not about wisdom, it’s not about knowledge, it is about belief. Later I hope to bring in the big artillery and talk about how important knowledge is, and knowledge of certain realms, certain aspects of human life. But for now, let me leave you, the unvanquished if unrecognized inheritors, with the question I began with: what has your singular devotion brought you? Are you still parishioners? Do you still believe? Or are you here to check out the stained glass?
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