Links: Surprisingly SFW links, family mysteries, notebooks, new cities, violence, Tolkien, and more!

* “Casual Sex: Everyone Is Doing It?” This is in the New Yorker, so it’s not the usual, and the website itself is interesting (likely SFW, as it’s text only, but clicker beware).

* “In Berlin, Unraveling a Family Mystery,” an incredible, beautiful, and moving story: “And so in the year 2015, names and faces were put to two more victims of the Holocaust — my mother’s brother, Szilard Diamant, and his wife, Hella.” Particularly given the current rhetoric around immigration, the story of Szilard Diamant’s struggles matter.

* “Professors investigated by a ‘Bias Response Team’ for presenting opposing viewpoints.” This is not The Onion.

* “Why the Humble Notebook Is Flourishing in the iPhone Era.” This should sound familiar to you.

* Y Combinator is looking into building new cities.

* “Enforcing the law is inherently violent,” a point that ought to be more salient.

* “How J.R.R. Tolkien Found Mordor on the Western Front.” Maybe.

* “What you read matters more than you might think;” this is part of the reason I oppose showing movies in class, at least in most circumstances.

Links: Entitlement, Ferguson, blogs, reading, war

* “The Problem of Entitlement: A Question of Respect,” especially worth reading for teachers and students, though it is excellent throughout. This especially resonates:

The world of grad students two decades later is a lot different. Nearly all the students have smartphones, which they bring to class. Nearly all of them spend more time staring at screens than at books.

And the students I encounter seem to value reading less and less. I remember one especially galling workshop that I taught a few years ago, in which I asked the participants to read a single story, “Guests of the Nation” by Frank O’Connor. Hardly any of them bothered. They didn’t seem to understand—they were too entitled to understand—that the production of great literature requires a deep engagement with great literature. In fact, they were more likely to talk about a movie or TV show, or what they just posted on Facebook, than the last great book they read.

When I go into coffeeshops computers and phones outnumber books at least 10:1. That is worth contemplating for anyone who writes or aspires to write books. In many ways writing is more important than ever—in an email yesterday I said that books may be the (financial) wagging the cultural dog—but people are arguably getting paid either less or differently for it.

women with cell phone in coffee shop-1829* “How we’d cover Ferguson if it happened in another country.”

* Blogs will outlast the various “Social Media” companies.

* Housing policy is the biggest thing “blue states” are screwing up.

* “The Great Unread: Why do some classics continue to fascinate while others gather dust?” What is the role of the reader, and how will a given society evolve? To most 19th C writers, coming secularization probably wasn’t totally obvious. What are 21st Century writers underestimating?

The other reality of reading is that an infinite number of books can be read at a given moment. Even dedicated readers rarely read more than 100 books a year.

* Fundamentalists are not traditionalists.

* We cannot really understand the horror of the Eastern front in World War II.

Links: Reading, photos, teaching, life

* Inadvertently depressing, though it does raise the relative status of photographers: “Photos are the killer content type on mobile. Quick to consume like text, but easier to produce on a phone.”

* “The Moral Inversion of Economic Thinking,” or, why economics offends through counterintuitive facts and principles.

* “Putting Teacher Tenure In Context,” which has revised my opinions.

* “Reading: The Struggle” (maybe).

* Is tax evasion the key to understanding nonsensical-seeming data about first-world indebtedness?

* Someone found this blog by searching for “nurses making love.” I don’t know either.

* “When Literature Was Dangerous.”

* “Teaching college is no longer a middle-class job, and everyone paying tuition should care.

The purpose the Canon serves

What Is Literature? In defense of the canon” has a lot of interesting things to say but one thing it doesn’t mention is the purpose served by the Canon, or a canon: as a guide through infinity. An individual needs some means for sorting through the millions of books that have been published, and an agreement on some of the “good” ones, even for an imperfect definition of “good,” is better than nothing. A map that says “there are mountains a hundred miles away” when there are actually mountains fifty miles away is better than no map at all: an awareness of mountains ahead is useful. Some writers also do more sophisticated and interesting things with words than others, and those are for the most part the writers who endure.

Krystal does write, towards the end of his essay:

Here’s the trick, if that’s the right word: one may regard the canon as a convenient fiction, shaped in part by the material conditions under which writing is produced and consumed, while simultaneously recognizing the validity of hierarchical thinking and aesthetic criteria

“Convenient” is key. An unusually dedicated reader of books for adults might get two books a week; a “professional” reader (academics, critics, some writers) might do more, but even five books is probably a stretch for all but the most voracious and speedy fast. If one reads two books a week starting at say age 15, that’s only 3,120 books over the next 30 years. There are more novels than that being published this year. How does one search and sort?

There is no perfect answer, but a canon of some sort, that other hard-core readers have thought about, is one possible and perhaps most importantly reasonable method. Krystal writes of how

canon formation was, in truth, a result of the middle class’s desire to see its own values reflected in art. As such, the canon was tied to the advance of literacy, the surging book trade, the growing appeal of novels, the spread of coffee shops and clubs, the rise of reviews and magazines, the creation of private circulating libraries, the popularity of serialization and three-decker novels, and, finally, the eventual takeover of literature by institutions of higher learning.

but while that is true “convenience” should probably appear as well, and appear prominently.

Links: Joseph Epstein, A Smart (Finally) Women-in-Tech Piece, Gary Becker, Reading, and More

* “On Joseph Epstein,” which is of interest even when it is wrong; I’m also struck by how much things have changed: “In her 1939 essay ‘Reviewing,’ Virginia Woolf called the nineteenth-century reviewer ‘a formidable insect’ with ‘considerable power’ to alter the public reception of a book.” Today the barbarians aren’t just at the gates but in the temple.

* “It’s Different for Girls,” which is one of the only good women-in-tech pieces I’ve ever read (and I’ve read a lot of them); the last paragraph is especially good.

* Gary Becker died; here are a few of his papers.

* “How Creativity Could Save Humanity: Stefan Zweig, the obscure Austrian writer whose life and work inspired The Grand Budapest Hotel, believed imagination could help propel society toward universal tolerance and accord,” which has many counter-intuitive (to me) points; I especially like the comparisons between Europe and Brazil.

* Talent management in Silicon Valley.

* “U.S. children read, but not well or often: report.” My guess—and it’s purely a guess—is that the top end is doing extraordinarily well and perhaps better than ever (books are cheaper, good writing more available due to the Internet, good writing is more useful and visible, etc.—see Penelope Trunk’s dubious argument in “The Internet has created a generation of great writers “), and the bottom end that can barely read and write effectively has been with us since at least the 1960s and probably earlier. As with so much else I suspect that the middle is the real issue lies and where the real action is.

Part of this view comes from teaching English at the University of Arizona, where most honors students were at least competent writers for their age and some were really good—sometimes much better than I was at their age. Many professors and teachers do the standard bemoaning of the-kids-these-days-with-their-newfangled-gadgets, but I didn’t see much of that among those with real skills.

Why fiction? Why reading?

When we pick up a decent book, we live not once but twice, and each new book allows us to live again and absorb the thoughts of someone who has absorbed thousands of other people’s thoughts. The book is the most powerful medium yet invented for intellectual stimulation, growth, and change. The bounty is endless and in the contemporary world very cheap. Most, though, reject the gift. Is this not strange?

Pretty much everyone who is deeply interested in reading gets and/or writing gets some version of the utility question that I answered in the first paragraph (and have answered in other places). Each answer has its own idiosyncrasies, but I think they have a common core that revolves around knowledge and pleasure. The issue is on my mind because a friend wrote me to say regarding Asking Anna, “thanks for having thought through that book content and made it available for people like me to read and then not have to do some of the work. I like that.” The crazy thing is that crazy people have been doing this for centuries: packaging many thousands of hours of thinking into works that take only a few hours to read.

That’s true of fiction and nonfiction, and in some ways lately nonfiction has been leading the perceive quality race. But historically fiction has tended to advance the state of the art in prose, with novelists especially leading the charge towards renewing the language. Arguably this tendency has decreased over time, but I’ve never read a great nonfiction writer who didn’t also read fiction, or read a lot of fiction at one point.

Good novelists tend to be obsessed with the quality of their prose in a way fewer nonfiction writers are. Too many nonfiction writers focus on content at the expense of form and beauty; some have been glamored by some of the stupid literary theory that passes for erudition in some academic circles (Katharine Frank’s books, like Plays Well in Groups: A Journey Through the World of Group Sex, suffer from this, though she is merely a salient example and far from the only offender).

Fiction tends to train us to attend to language, and books like Wood’s How Fiction Works and Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer do the same. When one becomes sufficiently attuned to language, poorly written work or even work that is merely competent becomes aggravating, like a song messed by a drunk guitarist.

That’s my short utilitarian defense of fiction, but I read it for pleasure. The history of the West is one in which pleasure is suspect, especially in the Judeo-Christian tradition; sometimes for good reasons and sometimes for less-good reasons. That tradition encourages us to make sure that pleasure is always deferred, and that’s the tradition that led to the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution and hence to the present day. We’re still getting somewhat used to enormous material wealth, at least by historical standards. But pleasure has its own importance, and there is pleasure in the many lives we can choose to live through books. Perhaps the most interesting thing is that so many people do not make the choice.

Every great book is the result of years or decades of studying and experience, distilled into a volume you can read in a few hours. How could you not want that?

Life: The readers edition, and Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan

Both Huet and Bayle were erudites and spent their lives reading. Huet, who lived into his nineties, had a servant follow him with a book to read aloud to him during meals and breaks and thus avoid lost time. He was deemed the most read person in his day. Let me insist that erudition is important to me. It signals genuine intellectual curiosity. It accompanies an open mind and the desire to probe the ideas of others. Above all, an erudite can be dissatisfied with his own knowledge, and such dissatisfaction is a wonderful shield against Platonicity, the simplifications of the five-minute manager, or the philistinism of the overspecialized scholar. Indeed, scholarship without erudition can lead to disasters.

—Nassim Taleb, The Black Swan, a book that I had erroneously believed I had already “read” through the many references to it made by other books and articles. I turned out to be completely wrong, as the book is still original and almost every page has some unexpected insight; like Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind I consistently cannot predict the brilliant observations and extensions that come from the unfurling of a basic idea that is simple to understand.

Regarding the quote itself, I would add that it is not only the quantity of reading but the quality that makes erudition; reading a great number of, say, romance novels is unlikely to yield the erudition of reading broadly yet deeply. Reading a few romance novels might be essential to deep thinkers, however, for reasons that I will leave to you, or to commenters, to explain.

I also have defended reading, especially to those who say they somehow do not “have the time,” by pointing out that books often encompass years or decades of a writer’s life and thinking in a volume that can be read in just a few hours; who would not want the wisdom of 20 years distilled into an easily digestible chunk? Yet apparently many people don’t want such a gift, which is widely available for $10 – $15 at bookstores or for less from Amazon or free from many libraries. Satisfaction with your own knowledge is a sign that a mind has become barren without even realizing its own barrenness.

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