The Reader — Bernhard Schlink

Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader is sensual and philosophical, moving from the former, which predominates in the beginning, toward the latter in a manner “both purposeful and purposeless, successful and futile,” as Michael describes the journeys in the Odyssey. “What is else is the history of the law?” he asks, and one might ask the same of history, full stop, or of love; The Reader implies that there is no answer save that the law, history, or love have whatever purpose we graft onto it, just as one could argue for a sensual reading of the novel, especially in the first part, or a philosophic, especially as Michael grows older. A young man with an older woman named Hanna feels the sensual as well as their, and its, doom, while the second, comes from an older lawyer who finds that his first love, if one can call it that, is being tried for crimes that would seem astonishing if not for the time period and location. There is a third part I will demure from speaking much of; to do so would give too much away in a novel that often feels like it gives too little away, especially of its feelings. Chapters end with no sense of ending beyond the beginning of the next chapter. Chapters of Michael’s life end with a similar lack of fanfare, and The Reader is, at its base, a novel that almost demands readings as analytic as its protagonist is inclined to give.

Some descriptions in The Reader are simple and true enough not to need elaboration, and those who have undergone extensive trials will recognize what happens when Michael’s bout with hepatitis renders him hospitalized for months: “although friends still came to see me, I had been sick for so long that their visits could no longer bridge the gap between their daily lives and mine, and became shorter and shorter.” Then again, Michael does not make friends easily, and his eventual wife is a ghostly presence who seems to affect him less than the hepatitis, or, for that matter, the weather. Perhaps this event combined with natural temperament and his liaisons with Hanna make Michael himself. Or maybe he was always this way, and that’s what brought him to Hanna and her secrets. Alas: those apt sentences like the one describing Michael’s illness tantalize us for more, and yet they are not forthcoming.

This novel is hardly alone in its remote, abstract mode. What is it about these Europeans—Schlink, Milan Kundera, and Mario Vargas Llosa*—who write short, sheer novels in which scenes are described and then left, like shards of a pot or torn pages from a book, for us to construct, or reconstruct? The length of the mostly rhetorical question probably indicates how little of an answer I can give. It’s almost as if the denial of a character’s interpretation, or the uncertain certainty they display when they do give interpretations, are or should be a statement of what we won’t know. Although this is overly abstract, perhaps I’m given to say it by having just finished The Reader, which challenges us to read the unreadable, and my chief response to it has to be a level above the action itself. The book just ends with a statement so devoid of interpretation that the feeling it must submerge becomes enhanced all the more because of its hiddenness. Like a great novel, we are left to wonder.

But I purposefully say “like a great novel,” rather than calling the novel itself great.

* I know: Llosa was born in Peru. But he feels European and lives part-time in European countries, so I count him as one here.

Laptops, students, distraction: hardly a surprise

This post grew out of a comment responding to the question, “What Restrictions Should Student Laptops Have?” I’m a graduate student who teaches English 101/102 and takes classes at the University of Arizona. This post also dovetails nicely with “Desktops versus laptops.”

The short version: leave restrictions or lack thereof to the teachers or instructors.

For background, read “Why I ban laptops in my classroom,” “I Don’t Multitask,” “professor vs laptop,” Paul Graham’s “Disconnecting Distraction“and finally “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” This is not a new issue. If Paul Graham and other writers and hackers find the Internet ceaselessly distracting, what hope do freshmen have? I hear friends and other grad students say they feel like they can’t go more than a half hour without poking around the Internet, which hurts their writing time. Laptops in general and Internet connectivity in particular might cause greater problems than those they’re designed to solve.*

While I sympathize with some pro-laptop comments, I will point out that paternalism is not always bad; sometimes it’s a necessary component of developing discipline, fortitude, or tenacity. Banning laptops could help students develop the ability to focus for a sustained period of time and not get lost in class, particularly during discussions about complex material. In classrooms I’ve been in—including graduate classrooms—where virtually everyone had laptops, they were used for taking notes, yes. But they were also used for Facebook, and checking out happy hour, messaging, and messaging about the incompetence of the person speaking, checking the score, and a variety of other things that promote continuous partial attention.

The jokes are coming: you must’ve been a dumb student, gone to a bad school, had bad professors, be weak minded, etc. Maybe: but I think the bigger problem is that letting one’s attention temporarily wander is made so much easier by having a laptop and Internet connection is almost overwhelming. Sure, you can stay on a diet with a chocolate cake in your kitchen. Sure, you’d never lie on that mortgage application about your income—but, you know, you really want that McMansion, and no one is going to check it, and you just have to inflate it a little… The problem is that laptops made distraction so easy. They make it harder to separate the bad professor from the difficult material. And so on.

Students in universities succumb to the Beer and Circus mentality, and if they do, what luck will middle- and high-school students have? I teach freshmen English now at the University of Arizona and ban laptops. I’m aware of the counter-arguments and alluded to them above: if you’re not a compelling enough teacher to keep their attention, they deserve to use laptops to get around you. But what if you can’t get their attention in the first place? What if you’re trying to impart something important but that doesn’t have the immediacy of Perez Hilton? Then give them the Cs they deserve when they write bad papers. And then they whine to you about the grades they got. The Slashdot commenter would be such a strong writer or coder or mathematician that he could get by anyway: congratulations. But the other 24 people in the classroom probably can’t.

All this is to say that laptops can very easily and quickly become more a burden than benefit. For some classes they may be necessary or helpful, like programming classes. Still, not every lesson will call for them and not every teacher will want to use them.

“Here’s the dilemma — how much freedom do you give to students?” you ask. The answer depends too much on the instructor to give a firm answer, but I give the answer above in part because so many of the initial responses tend towards “let them do whatever they want.” Sure: and throw someone into an ocean a mile from shore and see what happens. If the teacher wants them to conduct a textual analysis of a Facebook profile, let them. If the teacher doesn’t want them to have Internet access, let the teacher have a kill switch for the room’s wireless router. That way, you’ll be allowing as much flexibility as the situation calls for.

Outside the school, students’ autonomy should be complete, and schools shouldn’t impinge on students’ rights to conduct themselves how they will. Many students will use computers in ways that seem wasteful, but a few will also hack them, use them for self-expression, and let the computers become assistants rather than crutches for thought.

Did you see what Randy Pausch calls the headfake in this essay? It’s partially about students, yes, but it’s really about how to create and learn. Computers can help those processes, but too often they seem to hinder. And when they hinder, they should be discarded. The real scarce resource in modern life is sustained attention.

EDIT 2015: Vox reports on a study that says “you should take notes by hand — not on a laptop.” The study claims that participants who wrote by hand had better recall, especially of complex concepts. Don’t take one study as definitive but in this case anecdote and research match.

In addition, Cal Newport’s book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World discusses similar topics. I think distraction and defeating it will be an ongoing saga for many decades.

* I haven’t gone as far as Paul Graham, who describes his solution:

I now leave wifi turned off on my main computer except when I need to transfer a file or edit a web page, and I have a separate laptop on the other side of the room that I use to check mail or browse the web. (Irony of ironies, it’s the computer Steve Huffman wrote Reddit on. When Steve and Alexis auctioned off their old laptops for charity, I bought them for the Y Combinator museum.)

My rule is that I can spend as much time online as I want, as long as I do it on that computer. And this turns out to be enough. When I have to sit on the other side of the room to check email or browse the web, I become much more aware of it. Sufficiently aware, in my case at least, that it’s hard to spend more than about an hour a day online.

And my main computer is now freed for work. If you try this trick, you’ll probably be struck by how different it feels when your computer is disconnected from the Internet. It was alarming to me how foreign it felt to sit in front of a computer that could only be used for work, because that showed how much time I must have been wasting.

Computer post: desktop or laptop/notebook?

Ars Technica reports that Global notebook shipments [have] finally overtake[n] desktops, making the issue all the more salient (Slashdot’s coverage is here). Of course, many of those notebooks are probably netbooks that supplement rather than supplant desktops, and the inflated notebook total is probably in part due to the disposable nature and limited longevity of notebooks. Still, the legitimate question remains, and my short answer for most people in most circumstances in “desktop.”

My work demands sustained concentration (see, for example, “Disconnecting Distraction”) and being in spot for a time helps that; I sold my PowerBook and used the proceeds for a 24″ aluminum iMac. It’s a vastly faster machine that’ll probably last longer than an equivalent laptop will and cost less. Those who want mobility pay for it, and I suspect most people overestimate their mobility and underestimate the benefits of a desktop.

But the question is one that an individual is better suited to answer, as it depends on that person’s needs, and I can only enumerate the trade-offs inherent in the laptop/desktop decision. The question becomes almost philosophical concerning the nature of the person you are: more peripatetic or less? Working for longer at a computer or not as long? Used to a large screen or not (becoming accustomed to space and then having it removed it difficult)? Annoyed by cable creep or not? To be sure, some groups of people are well-suited to notebooks: people who move often, have to travel frequently, and students scurrying between dorm and home all probably fit that category. I suspect there are fewer of them than the laptop numbers indicate and that many people don’t consider the detriments, especially ergonomically. I’ve heard the complaint too many times: my wrists hurt, or my back hurts, or my eyes are tired, and they almost always come from laptop users. I recently gave a friend an a Griffin iCurve for her laptop, which seemed to improve the problem. ICurves are no longer made, but the new version is called an Elevator.

An Elevator, external keyboard, monitor, and mouse improves the laptop, but they’re expensive. Comparing Mac equipment makes this delta particularly obvious—even if one buys third-party monitors—as various pricing specials and what not don’t obscure the underlying prices. One person in an Ars thread said, “I’ve found that if you don’t need mobility, paying for it is a bad idea.” Indeed: and the question becomes “need,” which I can’t answer. A Slashdot commenter said that “the lack of replaceable parts is one other reason why laptop sales are ‘higher’ than desktop sales.” Combined with a) the inherent jostling laptops experience and b) the compactness of the parts, raising the temperature inside the machine and increasing the likelihood that subtle manufacturing flaws will do things like pinch video cords or dislodge logic boards, this means laptops are likely to need to be replaced more often, in addition to their higher upfront costs.

I have an iMac, which has some of a laptop’s drawbacks, including no user-serviceable parts aside from RAM. But it’s also relatively easy to move and more likely to last than a ceaselessly mobile laptop. It remains in one place, making it easier to get in the zone, as described by Rands in Repose at the link. Books, mostly fiction but still a few technical ones too, surround my desk, and, like Malcolm Gladwell, I’m more likely to turn to them for quotes, inspiration, and sounding in many circumstances than to the much-scattered Internet:

[Gladwell ….] still prefers to do most of his research at the NYU library. Google is something of a personal hobbyhorse: “Google is the answer to the problem we didn’t have. It doesn’t tell you what’s interesting or what’s important. There’s still more in the library than there is on Google.”

He’s overstating his case but I take his point. Then again, the article also says that Gladwell likes to work in coffeeshops, which is anathema to me: I look every time someone walks by or the espresso machine goes off like a whistle, and at the end of three hours I’ve written as many sentences. There’s even a picture of him sitting at a laptop, perhaps contradicting some of my overall point.

Nonetheless, like most philosophy problems, this one has no perfect answer and is more an expression of underlying value than anything else. Granted, this decision has a greater economic aspect given the continued cost disparity between laptops and desktops, which seems unlikely to disappear in the immediate future. But I think that, if most people weigh what they value, the money and advantages of a desktop more often than not make them better machines. If you’re writing, or coding, or editing movies, or doing any number of other things for a sustained period of time on a somewhat regular basis, a desktop or laptop + external peripherals seems an improvement over a laptop. If you’re chiefly using a computer to read e-mail, check Facebook, and the like, the computer choice probably doesn’t matter. Either way, I’d rather the save money, although many others obviously prefer the mobility. To me, and presumably many others who like to write and to read, and the “deep thought” stage is, to my mind, more important than shallower activities that demand less cognitive attention. That’s not to say you can’t get in the zone or produce useful work on a laptop—millions of people obviously do—but I still think a desktop a more satisfying overall choice.

I can guarantee nothing, of course, and Lord of the Rings speaks to this issue, as it does to so many:

“… The choice is yours: to go or wait.” [Gildor said.]
“And it is also said,” answered Frodo, “Go not to the Elves for counsel, for they will say both no and yes.”
“Is it indeed?” laughed Gildor. “Elves seldom give unguarded advice, for advice is a dangerous gift, even from the wise to the wise, and all courses may run ill. But what would you? You have not told me all concerning yourself; how should I choose better than you? But if you demand advice, I will for friendship’s sake give it.”

EDIT: A recent NPD survey on netbooks found that “60 percent of buyers said they never even took their netbooks out of the house” (hat tip If your laptop never travels, why bother having one?

EDIT 2: I posted a follow-up regarding the relative reliability of desktops versus laptops. The former win according to the best data I’ve seen.

EDIT 3: Marco Arment has a post on why he’s now using a MacBook Pro instead of a Mac Pro. The reason: Solid State Drives (SSDs). The limiting factor on laptop performance for most people used to be the hard drive. With an SSD, it’s not. If you have enough money for a large-capacity SSD and are willing to put a conventional hard drive in the CD / DVD bay, you’re not giving up any substantial performance in day-to-day tasks. More than anything else, the growing power of SSDs make me think the days of desktop computers are limited.

Further comments on John Barth’s Further Fridays

(See my initial laudatory post here.)

John Barth’s Further Fridays continued to delight till the end, and it hovers ceaselessly around literary questions about form, character, ways of telling, and meaning. Do those sound boring? Maybe when I list them, but when they become part of Barth’s stories—and the Further Friday pieces feel more like stories than essays—they come alive like a Maryland Blue Crab. Consider this great big chunk of quote—appropriate, maybe, for someone who often delivers great big chunks of novel—but it also shows some of Barth’s gift at the level of sentence and idea:

I confess to having gotten increasingly this way [as in, insisting for just facts, whatever those are] myself over the years—an occupational side effect, I believe, in the case of those of us for whom the experience of fiction can never be innocent entertainment. We’re forever sizing it up, measuring ourselves against its author, watching to see how the effects are managed and whether all the dramaturgical pistols that were hung on the wall in act one get duly fired in act three. We’re like those musicians who can’t abide background music: They can’t listen except professionally, and if they’re not in the mood to do that, they prefer conversation, street noise, silence—anything but music.

Right: notice the quick metaphor of the dramaturgical pistols—alluding to the idea that a gun seen in an early chapter should be fired in a later one—and the slightly more developed metaphor of the musician. The musician idea is particularly relevant to Barth, who played as a young man—more on that later—but it also expresses one of the central themes in his work: that innocence prolonged is detrimental to the person holding it and that naive readings eventually give way to sophisticated and experienced readings. They show the growth of not just the critic, writer, or reader, but also of the individual, whose early actions and impressions should be tempered by experience. But some attempt to prolong naiveté foolishly, while others forget to try and see the perspective of the innocent or the childlike joy that can lead to great art. So what is one to do? Muddle along as best one can, Barth seems to argue, and learn as much as you can about that imperfect state we call life and the reactions of other smart or wise people to it.

I realize that the above paragraph sounds almost like self-help lite, but it would be a mistake to see Barth that way, and he discusses far more than just the nature of a particular story. Elsewhere, he deals with literary categorization, which has never been among my favorite subjects because it often seems to generate vastly more noise than music, and its combatants often mistaken that cacophony for a symphony. Barth does a reasonably good job—which is to say, as good a job as one can, given the subject matter and persnickety pedants likely to be interested—of not being caught in its brambles. Adding sufficient qualification makes for fewer explosions but greater harmony; as Barth says of Roland Barthes’ Writing Degree Zero

“the whole of literature,” [as Barth quotes Barthes] “from Flaubert to the present day, becomes the problematics of language.” If only he had been content to say that “the problematics of language”—indeed, the problematics of every aspect of the medium of literature, not language alone—becomes one of several prominent field-identification marks of our literature after “Flaubert.” But that kind of reasonable modification, I suppose, de-zings such zingers.

Given the choice of being mostly right and demure or mostly wrong and provocative, Barth takes the mostly right path. Still, he’s not “demure” as in boring, and his essays are filled with unusual zest. Sometimes the footnotes are the best parts; the blockquote above is one, and he sneaks another comment into a footnote, though it’s reiterated elsewhere in the body text: “As for twentieth-century literary Postmodernism, I date it from when many of us stopped worrying about the death of the novel (a Modernist worry) and began worrying about the death of the reader—and of the planet—instead.” The sentiment has its tongue-in-cheek enough not to be taken completely seriously, and yet it’s accurate enough to consider further consideration. Maybe in jokes we tell the greatest truths that could never slide by as bald assertions.

The piece the modernist definition comes from was published in the 1980s, although it reprises arguments from 1968 and 1979, about which one can read more in The Friday Book. But its concerns are still germane: global climate change fears fuel cataclysmic scenarios that aren’t implausible, as do those involving the death of reading. Reading’s demise seems to be greatly exaggerated—what do most of us do online and via e-mail if not read, as Steven Berlin Johnson argues in Dawn of the Digital Natives—but the quality of reading seems to diminish apace online. Still, websites with global reach and many visitors seem fairly literate, and the only well-known, sub-literate blog I can think of is Mark Cuban’s, which I won’t dignify with a link. Then again, Cuban is also sitting on such a giant pile of cash that I doubt he cares about literacy, or Postmodernism.

Like Barth, I seem to have wandered a bit, and also like him, I’d like to circle back round to the main point of this post, which is to emphasize how good Further Fridays is. Sections repeat and reiterate earlier ideas, but I think of the repetitions more as variations in different keys than as irritants, and I think Barth would like that metaphor: he played jazz as a teenager and writes of going to Julliard to discover he had no or too little talent for music (my own musical talent, if I had any to begin with, has probably become undetectable thanks to lack of exercise). Milan Kundera also took up writing after music, and I wonder if other good example of musicians-turned-writers exist aside from Alex Ross, who turned from music to write about music. Barth is as self-referentially modest about his musical abilities as his other points, almost cloaking himself in faux humility when he writes, for instance: “My modest point is that the story of your life might be told as a series of career moves, or love affairs, or intellectual friendships, or houses lived in, or ideologies subscribed to (even magazines subscribed to), or physical afflictions suffered, or what have you, and that every one of those series might be recounted from very different perspectives, to very different effect.” Indeed: and we appreciate that, and the way it implicitly makes the case for reading. He preaches like the native to a religion he nonetheless realizes fewer practice:

If you happen to be a refugee from the Dorchester County tide marshes… as I was and remain, and particularly if you aspire to keep one foot at least ankle deep in your native bog while the other foot traipses through the wider world, it is well to have such an off-the-cart smorgasbord [of reading] under your belt, for ballast.

Incidentally, I’m fascinated with the catastrophic view of reading and its discontents: consider Jonathan Franzen’s introduction to How to Be Alone:

I used to consider it apocalyptically [there’s that end-times terminology again] worrisome that Americans watch a lot of TV and don’t read much Henry James. I used to be the kind of religious nut who convinces himself that, because the world doesn’t share his faith (for me, a faith in literature), we must be living in End Times.

I wonder too, as this blog probably demonstrates. Still, I’d argue that you can’t avoid keeping one foot in your native bog, regardless of whether that metaphorical bog is the boring suburbs of Bellevue, Washington, as it was for me, or the foothills of the Himalayas, or New York City, so you might as well do so in a way that makes you part of the wider rather than narrower world, so you can reconcile the two as best you can. The most efficient way to do so, it seems to me, is the way Barth recommends: promiscuous and wild reading, and ideally of books as interesting as Further Fridays.

Late December links: Holiday guide edition

* From James Fallows, excellent holiday shopping advice for you to ignore. I’ve followed it, but like a person of religious persuasion who pats himself on the back from not fornicating, I can’t help but think that I’m not much going to change the composition of the cultural ocean around me. Still, giving books for me is only half about the book itself: the other half is gauging the book someone else would want.

In large part, I’m not just giving the physical manifestation, but the fruit of whatever meager knowledge I have about book and recipient. Sometimes this works better and sometimes not, but I think it worth trying, since the gift of expertise is perhaps the best one of all.

Fallows has a second post on the subject here. And Random House’s Modern Library imprint gets in on the action here. And Mark Sarvas does here. And I do in the post you’re reading.

* Although not directly related to the above, this is pretty interesting:

There is a Catalan custom of men giving women and girls red roses on St. George’s Day (April 23), while women traditionally give men and boys a book on that day.

My guide mentioned that the books are always sold to the (female) buyer at a 10 percent discount below the regular price […]

But why the book discount?

Answer: no one knows.

* As if to reinforce some of the points I made in my post on Beer and Circus, the Financial Times reports:

But students at Manchester University, where he is paid £3,000 an hour as professor of creative writing, barely recognise him.

A survey by Student Direct, the company that offers undergraduate loans and banking services, asked students to put names to faces of the university’s prominent figures. Only 12 per cent knew who Mr Amis was.

Then again, maybe 12% is pretty good for an author.

(Hap tip TEV.)

* According to a Wall Street Journal analysis

Your parents might have worried when you chose Philosophy or International Relations as a major. But a year-long survey of 1.2 million people with only a bachelor’s degree by PayScale Inc. shows that graduates in these subjects earned 103.5% and 97.8% more, respectively, about 10 years post-commencement.

After 10 years, Philosophy majors earn more than Business Management majors, but still less than Math and many engineering majors. Consider this in light of the second bullet point in this earlier post from me. Consider too “The Management Myth” in The Atlantic, which argues that

Most of management theory is inane, writes our correspondent, the founder of a consulting firm. If you want to succeed in business, don’t get an M.B.A. Study philosophy instead.

As so often happens with such arguments, I don’t know whether I like it because it’s true or if I like it because it flatters the values I hold.

(But maybe the smartest people of all discard philosophy, as Paul Graham argues at the link.)

Into Thin Air — Jon Krakauer

This article and some of the commentary around it inspired me to get Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, which was a blessing and curse; I read the first page, then another, and then found myself still reading six hours later, to the detriment of other responsibilities. It was one of these addictive, incredible books.

Was it worth it shirking the rest of my life? Maybe: but once I began, it was hard to stop. Into Thin Air is probably the kind of book people mean when they say “page-turner,” although that term is usually applied to badly written slop. Qualifying exactly what that means on an individual level eludes me: I look for a place, a word, a sentence, a paragraph that I can reproduce and say, “There! That’s a perfect example of what I’m describing.” But Into Thin Air resists such a reading; the sentences are good but seldom noteworthy. At times there are cliches: “Neal Beidleman […] remains haunted by a death he was unable to prevent,” as we’ve heard from a million melodramatic, sentimental cop books. In the context, however, Krakauer both transcends and reaffirms the cliche: we see that Beidleman, with his heroism and impotence on the face of the mountain, is haunted, perhaps most of all because the death could have been prevented by not climbing the mountain in the first place. But it’s a price for the chance at transcendence, the moment when you’re at 29,028 feet and have achieved a quixotic goal that means nothing and everything. After Into Thin Air, I have a new appreciation for the descriptions of Caradhras and Moria in The Lord of the Rings, where the mountains gain an ominous, almost palpable malevolent darkness.

Krakauer was a journalist and (mostly former) climber who wanted to try Everest, and when he found that Outside magazine would send him, he went. Climbing Everest isn’t a simple task, even for those experienced with high altitudes; it takes at least six weeks of time acclimating as well as north of $50,000 to go. As of 1996, about one of four people who reached the top of Everest died on the way down. Judging from this, the percentage hasn’t changed much, since 881 people died on Everest in the 1990s and 327 did in 2000 and 2001. He went with a “commercial” expedition and was assigned to write about commerce and the mountain.

Instead, he wrote about disaster and the mountain.

At such extreme limits of what the body can accomplish, Krakauer experienced the mind-body problem in what might be its purest form, when he sought the shelter of Camp 4 after summitting. Camp 4 is the last human refuge before the peak, and Krakauer had been fighting Everest for almost two months. In this state he describes himself:

I was so far beyond ordinary exhaustion that I experienced a queer detachment from my body, as if I were observing my descent from a few feet overhead. I imagined that I was dressed in a green cardigan and wingtips. And although the gale was generating a wind-chill in excess of seventy below zero Fahrenheit, I felt strangely, disturbingly warm (193).

I know the sensation from running cross country, but the difference between a half marathon and a near-death experience on Everest gives me only the faintest ability to imagine his circumstance, like comparing a toe stub to cutting off one’s foot. Some of the others are familiar too, but not from climbing; Krakauer writes that the rubber oxygen mask he wore made him “[feel] drugged, disengaged, thoroughly insulated from external stimuli.” Morphine has, in my limited experience, the same effect.

But the greatest lessons from Into Thin Air come from the group mistakes that so often mark human foibles: vanity, competition, status, and monetary incentives combine to push everyone just past the point of safety in a place where the margin is almost non-existence. Bad communication hampers the effort: radios are not where they should be; firm plans for where ropes should be placed aren’t created and follow. I can’t help but think of Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes, Why Buildings Fall Down: How Structures Fail and Richard Feynman’s What Do You Care What Other People Think?: Further Adventures of a Curious Character. The last deals with the Challenger disaster, while the other two deal with disaster in other circumstances.

What the three have in common with Into Thin Air is a general algorithm for how disasters tend to happen among well-meaning, otherwise cautious people: signs are missed and safety precautions ignored; communication breaks down; other goals slowly supersede the goal of making sure everyone is safe; and numerous, relatively small problems combine to create a situation that shouldn’t but does become disaster. With Into Thin Air, no one noticed the thunderstorm clouds building below Everest’s peak; the firm turnaround time of 1:00 p.m. (or 2:00 at the latest) was ignored; few of the teams on the mountain knew what others were doing; the rivalry between guided groups grew; one guide made a decision to go up and down the various camps too many times; and all this was exacerbated by the altitude and the way a lack of oxygen impairs cognition. One Sherpa, Lopsang, decides to “tow” a client, which essentially means hauling the client up by rope, like a human boat traveling vertically. To Krakauer, this “didn’t seem like a particularly serious mistake at the time. But it would end up being one of many little things—a slow accrual, compounding steadily and imperceptibly toward critical mass.”

The above paragraph is relatively dry, almost scholarly or lawyerly, and it lacks the visceral impact of some of the book’s telling details: passing bodies on the way up, left or forgotten because they’re so difficult to carry down; the sensation of looming ice towers; the terrible realization that some people won’t make it; the fact that virtually every person going up that mountain was, on some level, implicated in the deaths that occurred. Krakauer has a disarming way of reminding us of climbing’s sacrifices, great and small. On April 29, 2006, the group makes it so high that “for the first time on the expedition the vista was primarily sky rather than earth. Herds of puffy cumulus raced beneath the sun, imprinting the landscape with a shifting matrix of shadow and blinding light.” That’s one of the smaller: the greater have already been mentioned.

This talk of sacrifice raises an obvious question: why climb? The answer is elusive, like asking the meaning of life or what the wind feels like as it caresses your face: you can give an absurdly simple answer or an equally absurdly detailed answer and still never answer. George Mallory’s famous answer concerning why he wanted to climb Everest—because it’s there—is as good as any and as good as anyone is likely to get. Nonetheless, I would speculate that maybe there is something to being utterly, inalienably alone; Krakauer writes about in this book and Into the Wild, while others—ranging from Thoreau in Self-Reliance to innumerable adventure stories preach the virtues of being cut from the societal network that envelops most of the world, and envelops us with particular force in the West. If this aloneness comes at a cost, it’s the cost of knowing that, out there, you’re not five minutes from a hospital and chinese takeout, and that if things turn ill you’ll die. I mentioned Lord of the Rings before and will mention it again here because in that book, the wilderness has the sense of loneliness and danger that few others can impart: the wild truly feels wild and dangerous—and free. I’m tempted to make grandiose generalizations about how “a society where coddling is the norm,” but I can’t, not and stick to the truth, as the way we think of society says as much if not more about us than it does about the society we comment on.

Regardless of the lessons imparted, what stays with me about Into Thin Air is the sense of foreboding and of empathetic terror at impending death. Those things are beyond the ability of words to describe, but Krakauer gets as close as anyone, and that is why, whatever the sins of Into Thin Air‘s writing style, I kept reading.

Beer and Circus: How Big-Time Sports Is Crippling Undergraduate Education — Murray Sperber

Federal Requests for Proposals (RFPs) like the Grant Competition To Prevent High-Risk Drinking or Violent Behavior Among College Students are like sheets of paper held up as protection against the hurricane of larger social forces. The program aims to “develop or enhance, implement, and evaluate campus-and/or community-based strategies to prevent high-risk drinking or violent behavior among college students,” but it’s facing a campus culture that, as Murray Sperber describes in Beer and Circus: How Big Time College Sports is Crippling Undergraduate Education, has shifted to drinking and fanatical attention to sports in lieu of learning (I couldn’t help but think of a classic piece from The Onoin, “You Will Suffer Humiliation When The Sports Team From My Area Defeats The Sports Team From Your Area,” which sums my feelings about sports I’m not actually playing).

The “How Big Time College Sports is Crippling Undergraduate Education” subtitle is slightly misleading: big-time college aren’t themselves crippling education, though they are a contributing facto. Rather, they combine with shifts in university priorities toward research, curriculums, graduate departments, and star professors that, combined with a negative feedback loop thanks to big-time sports and decreased state and federal funding support, leads to inferior undergraduate education at many big schools and big public schools in particular. Hence the “beer and circus” formulation that alludes to bread and circus, with beer deadening thought and circus in the form of sports. Sperber’s argument is not a bad argument, although it’s overstated—universities are not as callow as he makes them out to be. Furthermore, if students in the aggregate didn’t want beer and circus, they would vote with their feet and wallets, as many of the financially able and academically inclined do.

That last designation, “academically inclined,” is an important one: Sperber discusses the four loose categories students tend to fall into, with the collegiate wanting parties, Greek life, and sports, the academic wanting knowledge, the vocational wanting a better job, and the rebels looking for life fulfillment. I might add the “lost” group, or those who wandered into college as an extension of high school and don’t really know why they’re there except that their parents told them to go. These categories aren’t rigid, and students can shift from one to the other and carry traits from more than one, but they’re useful nonetheless. Sperber cites research efforts to explore the composition of schools based on those categories, and it appears that, at many big public schools, the collegiate and vocational students compose the vast majority and have at least since World War II. Schools in turn began shifting their priorities, which accelerated in the 60s and early 70s, and appears to have reached its apotheosis sometime around there.

There’s some danger of propagating a myth of the golden age, but Sperber does seem to have found a genuine shift, especially when he’s discussing funding priorities. The most useful section might be devoted to the culture gap between many of those who control university departments and their undergraduate students. In this respect, the academic outsiders of undergrad eventually become the professors. Here’s where I wonder if the mythological aspect is rising, since, as a percentage basis, the academically inclined might not have dropped any or much, but the sheer number of them simply hasn’t kept up with the collegiate or vocational, and consequently, their influence might have waned. Academic-types also probably can’t connect with professors as easily as they once might have and are more likely to be left adrift in vast classrooms Sperber analogizes to mass transit stations, with all the charming behavior that implies. At the same time, the gulf between undergrads and professors grows: most professors came from the academic culture, while their students don’t. Conflict naturally arises, and I’ve now experienced it—most often indirectly but occasionally directly; the instructors will snicker when they (we?) hear excuses like, “I couldn’t come to class because my sorority kidnapped me…” Such excuses can be especially galling when they come back to back with students who have real problems, like family medical emergencies. How should one respond, I can’t help but asking? There doesn’t seem to be an ideal way, in part because of different values—and I can’t help believing mine are superior. And it’s not easy to inculcate those kinds of values regarding critical thinking, writing, and the like on an industrial scale to people who chiefly want to party. The question becomes, “What should be done?” and the answers—discussed briefly below—seem likely to remain in the ethereal realm of ideas rather than the practical realm of implementation.

Obviously I’ve spent some time considering Sperber’s conclusions and reasoning. But, alas, a book like Beer and Circus reminds me of Harold Bloom’s How to Read and Why in that both are unlikely to reach the people who need them most—in Bloom’s case, people who don’t or seldom read, and in Sperber’s case, people in positions of power at colleges or who are choosing colleges. The kinds of people most likely to read Beer and Circus are the academics, who are already opposed to the beer and circus mentality and don’t need to be convinced. We find a paradox: someone insightful enough to read this book and who knows something about large universities in the United States will probably already understand the problems it describes, while those who don’t see the problems or like beer and circus aren’t likely to read it.

So how could you decrease campus drinking and such? By now, the game-day culture is sufficiently entrenched that you probably can’t, but one could allocate more money to universities with the stipulation that the money a) not supplant existing teaching funds and—here’s the critical part—b) go entirely to support teaching, rather than research, athletic centers, administrators, and the like. It’s likely to be more effective than approaches like trying to prevent high-risk drinking or violent behavior through band-aids that don’t fix the fundamental problems underlying the behavior: a persistent focus among faculty on research, among undergraduates on each other, and with almost no one but grad students (like me) minding the undergrads. Small schools and honors programs help somewhat, but Sperber justifiably calls them “lifeboats.” Real change would cost more, take more time and effort, and require more full-time teachers and professors who are actually rewarded, socially and otherwise, for teaching. All that seems improbable: what’s more probable is business-as-usual, with books like Sperber’s marking time in unused libraries while most of the student body spends time on the field and in the stadium.

(Oh, and for more Onion-related mockery: see Shitload Of Math Due Monday, which is not unlike many comments I overhear at the gym.)

John Barth’s Further Fridays is Recommended

I’m about halfway through Further Fridays, John Barth’s second “essay, lecture, and other nonfiction” collection and find it as pleasurable and intelligent as The Friday Book, his first. Perhaps my favorite essay thus far is “A Few Words About Minimalism,” which is anything but minimalist and contains this gem:

But at least among those of our aspiring writers promising enough to be admitted into good graduate writing programs… the general decline in basic language skills over the past two decades is inarguable enough to make me worry in some instances about their teaching undergraduates. Rarely in their own writing, whatever its considerable other merits, will one find a sentence of any syntactic complexity, for example, inasmuch as a language’s repertoire of other-than-basic syntactical devices permits its users to articulate other-than-basic thoughts and feelings, Dick-and-Jane prose tends to be emotionally and intellectually poorer than Henry James prose.

(Link (obviously) added by me.)

That second sentence is delicious: perhaps Barth overindulges on other-than-basic syntax to make a point, but the way the structure of the sentence helps make the point that the sentence’s content conveys makes it so impressive. Not only that, but it makes a case without over-making it: that key word “tends” gives Barth enough wiggle room to concede that one can find emotionally and intellectually powerful writing in relative simple prose, and he never states that complex prose must be more emotionally and intellectual more powerful.

That virtue of statement and qualification is present throughout; Further Fridays is the rare collection that doesn’t overstate its claims (I’m still thinking of you, John Armstrong, although it does so at the cost of necessary complexity. You can’t make nuanced arguments about the nature of literary categorization, or movements, or literature, in soundbites and slogans, and it’s also hard to do so from a dogmatic political or philosophical position. Fortunately, Barth seems to occupy none—or, as he might say, his lack of position is his position—and the result is a feeling, no doubt illusory, that I read from the perspective of someone who simply likes to read and likes stories. And I learn from him: I can throw in that “no doubt illusory” comment to protect myself from obvious criticisms while still making the overall point about the nature of criticism.

Expect more on Barth shortly.

How to Read and Why — Harold Bloom

Harold Bloom’s How to Read and Why is mostly an exercise close reading that tries to show how to learn by doing. The particular works Bloom chooses, ranging from Shakespeare to Borges to Proust, seem less important than the mere act of criticism; unlike most criticism, however, this one makes explicit the moral and other lessons it wants you to take. In some ways, How to Read and Why is a cheerleader for the personal critic inside all of us, like a book about eating that’s really for amateur restaurant reviewers for How to Read and Why could also be a broader version of Shakepeare: The Invention of the Human, with short essays on a variety of authors instead of one.

Bloom passes judgment—in a very “judicious” sense of the word—on authors and works, as when he says that “Absorbing as Crime and Punishment is, it cannot be absolved of tendentiousness, which is Dostoevsky’s invariable flaw.” That Bloom didn’t say “crime” in lieu of “flaw,” shows his seriousness as a writer, and maybe also his lack of fun in seizing a terrible but obvious pun. Elsewhere, some of Bloom’s analysis manages the difficult trifecta of being subtle, meaningful, and non-obvious, as when he writes that “Turgenev, like Henry James, learned something subtler from Shakespeare: the mystery of the seemingly commonplace, the rendering of a reality that is perpetually augmenting.” The word “augmenting” is perhaps off-key, but we understand what Bloom meant. Although I don’t know whether she learned it from Shakespeare, Virgina Woolf might have accomplished the same thing.

These insights or descriptions or banal commentary, depending on perspective, are sprinkled throughout the book. In each section—”chapter” is too large a word for them—Bloom goes through essentially the same formula, relating to short stories, poems, novels, plays, and then novels again: he gives a close reading of the work, states what he thinks is unusual about its style or content, then gives a lesson or lessons. Some “lessons” are negative, in that they show what not to aspire to, while others are positive; others toe the nebulous middle, like this passage about Chekhov’s “The Student:”

Nothing in ‘The Student,’ except what happens in the protagonist’s mind, is anything but dreadfully dismal. It is the irrational rise of impersonal joy and personal hope out of cold and misery, and the tears of betrayal, that appears to have moved Chekhov himself.

In weaker hands, such a comment might be merely sentimental and, worse, fatuous. But here it feels supported—organic—although to show how would require pages and pages of quote. It show the acknowledgment of cold and misery and the reality of those things through a single word: “irrational.” With it, Bloom nods at reality and then transcends it, as “The Student” does.

Nonetheless, not everything in How to Read and Why is flawless. Bloom writes that “[…] short stories, whether of the Chekhovian or Borgesian kind, constitute an essential ” Essential form? What the hell does that mean? What’s a non-essential form? Regardless of their essentiality or lack thereof, I still don’t care much for them because, as I’ve often explained to friends amused at this reasoning, by the time I’m into one, it ends. It takes novels to really hold me and to make me want to invest in them. He makes, however, as strong an intellectual and academic case for short stories as one is likely to find, although Francine Prose, James Wood, and others argue in their favor. Regardless of their defenses, I still don’t like them.

Bloom also doesn’t and perhaps can’t explain the pleasures of reading except in terms of themselves, and perhaps that’s for the best: such sensations are difficult if not impossible to convey, but to his credit they are implied. It’s pleasure mingled with duty to Bloom, one becoming the other in the mature mind; as he writes, “I want to contrast Shakespeare’s abandonment of the work [toward ceaselessly reinventing consciousness] with Tarphon’s [a Rabbi of the same generation as the more famous Akiva] insistence that we are not free to abandon it.” The two are different perhaps for religious reasons; of Shakespeare’s inclinations we know little, but it seems that he probably had no God looking over his shoulder, while Tarphon had the possibility of disappointing God with him at every moment. The contrast between the two men is hardly surprising; it’s been claimed that the novel arose to take the place of God, meaning that a specialized form of imaginative narrative art overtook the belief in literal manifestations of a deity beyond time and space, and there is even a book with the very deliberate and appropriate title The Secular Scriptures, which studies Romance.

I’ve focused primarily on the short story section of How to Read and Why, and it’s emblematic of the strengths and weaknesses of the book as a whole. The major problem with Bloom’s approach is that sophisticated readers already do this, and they might even read critics who help them to do it better. People who don’t or seldom read probably won’t be interested. That leaves naive readers who would like to learn more, but I can’t imagine that a vast number of them are waiting for Harold Bloom’s instruction in the art of reading. It’s possible some exist, to be sure, but it seems more likely that someone interested in becoming a sophisticated reader will have already done so, and someone uninterested is unlikely to read a book to learn more about reading. How many people are there in the marginal space devoted to seekers who haven’t found much yet? Some, perhaps—the cover proclaims that How to Read and Why was a New York Times bestseller, for whatever that’s worth. Still, I could see How to Read and Why being an excellent gift book, or an excellent reference to attackers who say “why bother reading?”

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