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.

Hilarity in Delaware: Christine O’Donnell and J.R.R. Tolkien, sitting in a tree…

As almost everyone now knows, Christine O’Donnell won the Republican Senate primary in an upset, and, as almost everyone now knows and will forget six months from now, she’s also unintentionally hilarious. One of her better moments comes from a 2003 essay on Tolkien discussed in “The Republican Senate candidate’s analysis of “Lord of the Rings” reveals her views on feminine roles.” Unfortunately, Salon’s copy of O’Donnell’s essay has been removed, but not before I caught this bit: “Even as I researched this article, the only writings on Tolkien and feminism I found were on websites for freebee high school essays.”

As Jason Fisher said in an e-mail, “Not a promising opening. When the only writings you can find are high-school level, it’s a strong indication that your research techniques are only high-school level.” Indeed: by 2003, Jane Chance had published extensively on Tolkien. Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World came out in 2002. Tolkien Studies hadn’t been founded yet, but a lot of the material cited by it stretches back decades.

Even if you couldn’t find that material for whatever reason, the number of books about gender, gender construction, and gender symbolism in fiction is simply staggering; much of it could be and is being productively applied to Tolkien.

I sometimes say to my students that there is a world of ideas beyond the Internet or not available on it. They often don’t believe me, or if they do, don’t act on that belief. Now at least there’s a concrete example of failing to act on that belief in action.

Since humor is in the air like pheromones, it’s worth pointing to the Borowitz Report: “Delaware Masturbators March Against O’Donnell.” Where’s that parody coming from? See Christine O’Donnell, masturbation socialist on Slate.

I seldom comment on politics because I think most political discussions are really about people signaling what they perceive their values to be, not about the exchange of real information or ideas about the world beyond the individual espousing a particular point of view. But the opportunity to do so here is too rich to ignore and has led to a very amusing juxtaposition of post tags, and with O’Donnell, even Frank Rich gets into the spirit, writing for the New York Times:

But history will always remember her for taking a fearless stand against masturbation, the one national pastime with more fans than baseball.

Our great country has truly come a very long way if being anti-masturbation is now coded as being anti-American. In a world where drug stores are selling sex toys, how could it not be?

Every so often politicians emerge for whom pot shots are the optimal method of engagement; Slate writes from the left and so mostly attacks Republicans, but this bit is pretty hilarious:

And I guess it was those terrible experiences that led her to spend her life telling girls never to feel lust, which is a sensible and realistic thing to recommend.

Just say no to fun has been working well for centuries, whether from the early Progressives on Prohibition, the modern-day versions of the, or the anti-sex Republicans. Telling people not to feel lust is pretty close to telling people not to feel hungry; sure, you find the occasional monk who manages to fast for very long periods of time and primarily eats tea, bread, and fruit. The rest of us, however, will ask you to pass the potatoes, be generous with the wine, and ask whether you’ve tried the sumptuous French-Vietnamese fusion place up the street, the one with the amazing Pho.

Every so often, my students imply (usually they don’t say it outright) that English classes don’t matter, that what they learn in school doesn’t matter, and that they’ll succeed regardless. And every so often, the world offers up a story that implies they may be right.Christine O’Donnell is one such example.

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