Sunshine Recorder

Link: Reading Upward

Do people really pass from Fifty Shades of Grey to Alice Munro on a kind of neo-Platonic stairway?

“Frankly, I don’t mind what they’re reading, Twilight, Harry Potter, whatever. So long as they are reading something there’s at least a chance that one day they’ll move on to something better.”

How many times have we heard this opinion expressed? On this occasion the speaker was a literary critic on Canadian radio with whom I was discussing my recent blog post “Reading: The Struggle.” Needless to say the sentiment comes along with the regret that people are reading less and less these days and the notion of a hierarchy of writing with the likes of Joyce and Nabokov at the top and Fifty Shades of Grey at the bottom. Between the two it is assumed that there is a kind of neo-Platonic stairway, such that from the bottom one can pass by stages to the top, a sort of optimistic inversion of the lament that soft porn will lead you to hard and anyone smoking marijuana is irredeemably destined to descend through coke and crack to heroin. The user, that is, is always drawn to a more intense form of the same species of experience.

Of course, while the fear that one will descend from soft to hard drugs tends to be treated as a near certainty, the hope that one might ascend from Hermione Granger to Clarissa Dalloway is usually expressed as a tentative wish. Nevertheless, it serves to justify the intellectual’s saying, “Frankly, I don’t mind what they’re reading, etc.” (as if this were some kind of concession), and underwrites our cautious optimism when we see an adolescent son or daughter immersed in George R.R. Martin. It’s not Dostoevsky, but one day it might be, and in any event it’s better than a computer game or TV since these are not part of the reading stairway.

Is any of this borne out by reality? Do people really pass from Fifty Shades of Grey to Alice Munro? (Through how many intermediate steps? Never to return?) And if it is not true why does a certain kind of intellectual continue to express them? To what end?

In 1948 W.H. Auden published an essay, “The Guilty Vicarage,” on what he calls his “addiction” to detective novels. The point he makes is that these schematic narratives serve the escapist needs of readers who share his particular psychological make-up. These people will not, as a rule, Auden claims, with some elaborate argument, be the same readers as readers of light romances or thrillers, or fantasy fiction. Each genre has its pull on different types of minds. In any event, if he, Auden, is to get any serious work done, he has to make sure that there are no detective novels around, since if there are he can’t resist opening them, and if he opens them he won’t close them till he’s reached the end. Or rather, no new detective novels; for Auden notes this difference between the stuff of his addiction and literature: that the detective novel is no sooner read than forgotten and never invites a second reading, as literature often does.

The implications are clear enough. Auden denies any continuity between literary novels and genre novels, or indeed between the different genres. One does not pass from lower to higher. On the contrary one might perfectly well fall from the higher to the lower, or simply read both, as many people eat both good food and junk food, the only problem being that the latter can be addictive; by constantly repeating the same gratifying formula (the litmus test of genre fiction) it stimulates and satisfies a craving for endless sameness, to the point that the reader can well end up spending all the time he has available for reading with exactly the same fare. (My one powerful experience of this was a spell reading Simenon’s Maigret novels; after five or six it gets harder and harder to distinguish one from another, and yet one goes on.)

Auden, it should be noted, does not propose to stop reading detective novels—he continues to enjoy them—and expresses no regret that people read detective novels rather than, say, Faulkner or Charlotte Brontë, nor any wish that they use detective novels as a stepping stone to “higher things.” He simply notes that he has to struggle to control his addiction, presumably because he doesn’t want to remain trapped in a repetitive pattern of experience that allows no growth and takes him nowhere. His essay, in fact, reads like the reasoning of someone determined to explain to himself why he must not waste too much time with detective novels, and at the same time to forgive himself for the time he does spend with them. If anything, genre fiction prevents engagement with literary fiction, rather than vice versa, partly because of the time it occupies, but more subtly because while the latter is of its nature exploratory and potentially unsettling the former encourages the reader to stay in a comfort zone.

I’m forced to pause here to admit the objection that much supposedly literary fiction also repeats weary formulas, while some novels marketed as genre fiction move toward the exploratory by denying readers the sameness the format led them to expect. And of course many literary writers have made hay “subverting” genre forms. However, if the “I-don’t-mind-people-reading-Twilight-because-it could-lead-to-higher-things” platitude continues to be trotted out, it is because despite all the blurring that has occurred over recent years, we still have no trouble recognizing the difference between the repetitive formula offering easy pleasure and the more strenuous attempt to engage with the world in new ways.

So do people pass from the genre to the literary up our neo-Platonic ladder? Do they discover Stieg Larsson and move on to Pamuk? With no studies or statistics available to settle the question—at least I have not come across any—I can only resort to anecdotal evidence, as a father of three and a university teacher for many years. And the first thing to say is that no one has ever spoken to me of making this progression. My children all enjoyed listening to the classic canon of children’s stories in their infancy, but this did not automatically lead to “serious reading” later on, despite, or quite possibly because of, their parents’ highly developed reading habit. My son spent his adolescence switching back and forth between computer games and compulsive rereadings of The Lord of the Rings, equally happy with both forms of entertainment. Later, he gathered together complete collections of Jo Nesbø and Henning Mankell. When I have suggested trying the work of certain novelists I like—Coetzee, Moravia—his complaint is invariably that they are too disturbing and too close to home. My eldest daughter oscillates between pulp fiction and literary fiction with the greatest of ease, perfectly aware of the entirely different pleasures they offer. My youngest daughter pursues vast fantasy chronicles and seems entirely happy with them; they have never prompted her to consider opening any of the more literary works our bookshelves are stacked with. In fact she reads fantasy chronicles because they are not to be found on the family bookshelves and offer a distinctly different experience from literary fiction. She does not want, she says, to be troubled with the kind of realities she sees quite enough of. She likes the costumed world of bold exploits and special powers.

When I speak to my students, what is most striking is that the majority of them, who are content on a diet made up exclusively of genre fiction, simply do not perceive any difference in kind between these and literary works; they do not see the essentially conservative nature of the one and the exploratory nature of the other. They register no need to widen their reading experiences. Often they propose theses on genre works of no distinction whatsoever, unable to understand why their teachers might put these in a different category from, say, Doris Lessing or D.H. Lawrence.

If we assume, then, for the sake of argument and in the absence of persuasive information to the contrary, that narratives do not form a continuum such that one is naturally led from the simpler to the more complex, but offer quite different experiences that mesh with readers’ psyches and requirements in quite different ways, why do the right-thinking intellectuals continue to insist on this idea, even encouraging their children to read anything rather than nothing, as if the very act of reading was itself a virtue?

It’s evident that publishers have a commercial interest in the comforting notion that any reading is better than none. They can feel virtuous selling a hundred million copies of Fifty Shades, strong in the hope that at least some of those folks might move on to Pulitzer and Nobel winners, and perhaps eventually to some of the more obscure and adventurous writers in their stables — just as, in Fifty Shades itself, the heroine Anastasia can indulge in a little S&M as part of a project to lead Christian Grey out of his perversion and on to the joys of the missionary position in conventional wedlock. It’s always a relief to have reasons for supposing that what one is doing might have a bit more to it than the merest self-interest.

At a deeper level, there is a desire to believe in an educational process that puts the intellectual in a pastoral relationship to an ingenuous public who must be coaxed in a positive direction; that is, the notion of this pathway upward from pulp to Proust allows for the figure of the benign educator who takes the hands of blinkered readers and leads them from the stable to the stars, as the Italians say. It’s good to posit a scheme of things in which possibly obsolete skills like close reading and critical analysis in fact have an important social role.

What no one wants to accept—and no doubt there is an element of class prejudice at work here too—is that there are many ways to live a full, responsible, and even wise life that do not pass through reading literary fiction. And that consequently those of us who do pursue this habit, who feel that it enriches and illuminates us, are not in possession of an essential tool for self-realization or the key to protecting civilization from decadence and collapse. We are just a bunch of folks who for reasons of history and social conditioning have been blessed with a wonderful pursuit. Others may or may not be enticed toward it, but I seriously doubt if E.L. James is the first step toward Shakespeare. Better to start with Romeo and Juliet.

Link: Being a Better Online Reader

The science of why (at least for now) we absorb and understand less when we read digitally instead of in print.

Soon after Maryanne Wolf published “Proust and the Squid,” a history of the science and the development of the reading brain from antiquity to the twenty-first century, she began to receive letters from readers. Hundreds of them. While the backgrounds of the writers varied, a theme began to emerge: the more reading moved online, the less students seemed to understand. There were the architects who wrote to her about students who relied so heavily on ready digital information that they were unprepared to address basic problems onsite. There were the neurosurgeons who worried about the “cut-and-paste chart mentality” that their students exhibited, missing crucial details because they failed to delve deeply enough into any one case. And there were, of course, the English teachers who lamented that no one wanted to read Henry James anymore. As the letters continued to pour in, Wolf experienced a growing realization: in the seven years it had taken her to research and write her account, reading had changed profoundly—and the ramifications could be felt far beyond English departments and libraries. She called the rude awakening her “Rip van Winkle moment,” and decided that it was important enough to warrant another book. What was going on with these students and professionals? Was the digital format to blame for their superficial approaches, or was something else at work?

Certainly, as we turn to online reading, the physiology of the reading process itself shifts; we don’t read the same way online as we do on paper. Anne Mangen, a professor at the National Centre for Reading Education and Research at the University of Stavanger, in Norway, points out that reading is always an interaction between a person and a technology, be it a computer or an e-reader or even a bound book. Reading “involves factors not usually acknowledged,” she told me. “The ergonomics, the haptics of the device itself. The tangibility of paper versus the intangibility of something digital.” The contrast of pixels, the layout of the words, the concept of scrolling versus turning a page, the physicality of a book versus the ephemerality of a screen, the ability to hyperlink and move from source to source within seconds online—all these variables translate into a different reading experience.

The screen, for one, seems to encourage more skimming behavior: when we scroll, we tend to read more quickly (and less deeply) than when we move sequentially from page to page. Online, the tendency is compounded as a way of coping with an overload of information. There are so many possible sources, so many pages, so many alternatives to any article or book or document that we read more quickly to compensate. When Ziming Liu, a professor at San Jose State University whose research centers on digital reading and the use of e-books, conducted a review of studies that compared print and digital reading experiences, supplementing their conclusions with his own research, he found that several things had changed. On screen, people tended to browse and scan, to look for keywords, and to read in a less linear, more selective fashion. On the page, they tended to concentrate more on following the text. Skimming, Liu concluded, had become the new reading: the more we read online, the more likely we were to move quickly, without stopping to ponder any one thought.

The online world, too, tends to exhaust our resources more quickly than the page. We become tired from the constant need to filter out hyperlinks and possible distractions. And our eyes themselves may grow fatigued from the constantly shifting screens, layouts, colors, and contrasts, an effect that holds for e-readers as well as computers. Mary Dyson, a psychologist at the University of Reading who studies how we perceive and interact with typography and design online and in print, has found that the layout of a text can have a significant effect on the reading experience. We read more quickly when lines are longer, but only to a point. When lines are too long, it becomes taxing to move your eyes from the end of one to the start of the next. We read more efficiently when text is arranged in a single column rather than multiple columns or sections. The font, color, and size of text can all act in tandem to make our reading experience easier or more difficult. And while these variables surely exist on paper just as they do on-screen, the range of formats and layouts online is far greater than it is in print. Online, you can find yourself transitioning to entirely new layouts from moment to moment, and, each time you do so, your eyes and your reading approach need to adjust. Each adjustment, in turn, takes mental and physical energy.

The shift from print to digital reading may lead to more than changes in speed and physical processing. It may come at a cost to understanding, analyzing, and evaluating a text. Much of Mangen’s research focusses on how the format of reading material may affect not just eye movement or reading strategy but broader processing abilities. One of her main hypotheses is that the physical presence of a book—its heft, its feel, the weight and order of its pages—may have more than a purely emotional or nostalgic significance. People prefer physical books, not out of old-fashioned attachment but because the nature of the object itself has deeper repercussions for reading and comprehension. “Anecdotally, I’ve heard some say it’s like they haven’t read anything properly if they’ve read it on a Kindle. The reading has left more of an ephemeral experience,” she told me. Her hunch is that the physicality of a printed page may matter for those reading experiences when you need a firmer grounding in the material. The text you read on a Kindle or computer simply doesn’t have the same tangibility.

In new research that she and her colleagues will present for the first time at the upcoming conference of the International Society for the Empirical Study of Literature and Media, in Torino, Italy, Mangen is finding that that may indeed be the case. She, along with her frequent collaborator Jean-Luc Velay, Pascal Robinet, and Gerard Olivier, had students read a short story—Elizabeth George’s “Lusting for Jenny, Inverted” (their version, a French translation, was called “Jenny, Mon Amour”)—in one of two formats: a pocket paperback or a Kindle e-book. When Mangen tested the readers’ comprehension, she found that the medium mattered a lot. When readers were asked to place a series of events from the story in chronological order—a simple plot-reconstruction task, not requiring any deep analysis or critical thinking—those who had read the story in print fared significantly better, making fewer mistakes and recreating an over-all more accurate version of the story. The words looked identical—Kindle e-ink is designed to mimic the printed page—but their physical materiality mattered for basic comprehension.

Wolf’s concerns go far beyond simple comprehension. She fears that as we turn to digital formats, we may see a negative effect on the process that she calls deep reading. Deep reading isn’t how we approach looking for news or information, or trying to get the gist of something. It’s the “sophisticated comprehension processes,” as Wolf calls it, that those young architects and doctors were missing. “Reading is a bridge to thought,” she says. “And it’s that process that I think is the real endangered aspect of reading. In the young, what happens to the formation of the complete reading circuitry? Will it be short-circuited and have less time to develop the deep-reading processes? And in already developed readers like you and me, will those processes atrophy?”

Of course, as Wolf is quick to point out, there’s still no longitudinal data about digital reading. As she put it, “We’re in a place of apprehension rather than comprehension.” And it’s quite possible that the apprehension is misplaced: perhaps digital reading isn’t worse so much as different than print reading. Julie Coiro, who studies digital reading comprehension in elementary- and middle-school students at the University of Rhode Island, has found that good reading in print doesn’t necessarily translate to good reading on-screen. The students do not only differ in their abilities and preferences; they also need different sorts of training to excel at each medium. The online world, she argues, may require students to exercise much greater self-control than a physical book. “In reading on paper, you may have to monitor yourself once, to actually pick up the book,” she says. “On the Internet, that monitoring and self-regulation cycle happens again and again. And if you’re the kind of person who’s naturally good at self-monitoring, you don’t have a problem. But if you’re a reader who hasn’t been trained to pay attention, each time you click a link, you’re constructing your own text. And when you’re asked comprehension questions, it’s like you picked up the wrong book.”

Maybe the decline of deep reading isn’t due to reading skill atrophy but to the need to develop a very different sort of skill, that of teaching yourself to focus your attention. (Interestingly, Cairo found that gamers were often better online readers: they were more comfortable in the medium and better able to stay on task.) In a study comparing digital and print comprehension of a short nonfiction text, Rakefet Ackerman and Morris Goldsmith found that students fared equally well on a post-reading multiple-choice test when they were given a fixed amount of time to read, but that their digital performance plummeted when they had to regulate their time themselves. The digital deficit, they suggest, isn’t a result of the medium as such but rather of a failure of self-knowledge and self-control: we don’t realize that digital comprehension may take just as much time as reading a book.

Last year, Patricia Greenfield, a psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, and her colleagues found that multitasking while reading on a computer or a tablet slowed readers down, but their comprehension remained unaffected. What did suffer was the quality of a subsequent report that they wrote to synthesize their reading: if they read the original texts on paper or a computer with no Internet access, their end product was superior to that of their Internet-enabled counterparts. If the online readers took notes on paper, however, the negative effects of Internet access were significantly reduced. It wasn’t the screen that disrupted the fuller synthesis of deep reading; it was the allure of multitasking on the Internet and a failure to properly mitigate its impact.

Indeed, some data suggest that, in certain environments and on certain types of tasks, we can read equally well in any format. As far back as 1988, the University College of Swansea psychologists David Oborne and Doreen Holton compared text comprehension for reading on different screens and paper formats (dark characters on a light background, or light characters on a dark background), and found no differences in speed and comprehension between the four conditions. Their subjects, of course, didn’t have the Internet to distract them. In 2011, Annette Taylor, a psychologist at the University of San Diego, similarly found that students performed equally well on a twenty-question multiple-choice comprehension test whether they had read a chapter on-screen or on paper. Given a second test one week later, the two groups’ performances were still indistinguishable. And it’s not just reading. Last year, Sigal Eden and Yoram Eshet-Alkalai found no difference in accuracy between students who edited a six-hundred-word paper on the screen and those who worked on paper. Those who edited on-screen did so faster, but their performance didn’t suffer.

We need to be aware of the effects of deeper digital immersion, Wolf says, but we should be equally cautious when we draw causal arrows or place blame without adequate longitudinal research. “I’m both the Cassandra and the advocate of digital reading,” she says. Maybe her letter writers’ students weren’t victims of digitization so much as victims of insufficient training—and insufficient care—in the tools of managing a shifting landscape of reading and thinking. Deep-reading skills, Wolf points out, may not be emphasized in schools that conform to the Common Core, for instance, and need to meet certain test-taking reading targets that emphasize gist at the expense of depth. “Physical, tangible books give children a lot of time,” she says. “And the digital milieu speeds everything up. So we need to do things much more slowly and gradually than we are.” Not only should digital reading be introduced more slowly into the curriculum; it also should be integrated with the more immersive reading skills that deeper comprehension requires.

Wolf is optimistic that we can learn to navigate online reading just as deeply as we once did print—if we go about it with the necessary thoughtfulness. In a new study, the introduction of an interactive annotation component helped improve comprehension and reading strategy use in a group of fifth graders. It turns out that they could read deeply. They just had to be taught how. Wolf is now working on digital apps to train students in the tools of deep reading, to use the digital world to teach the sorts of skills we tend to associate with quiet contemplation and physical volumes. “The same plasticity that allows us to form a reading circuit to begin with, and short-circuit the development of deep reading if we allow it, also allows us to learn how to duplicate deep reading in a new environment,” she says. “We cannot go backwards. As children move more toward an immersion in digital media, we have to figure out ways to read deeply there.”

Wolf has decided that, despite all of her training in deep reading, she, too, needs some outside help. To finish her book, she has ensconced herself in a small village in France with shaky mobile reception and shakier Internet. Faced with the endless distraction of the digital world, she has chosen to tune out just a bit of it. She’s not going backward; she’s merely adapting.

"Civilization and its Discontent" by Sigmund Freud

Written in the decade before Freud’s death, Civilization and Its Discontents may be his most famous and most brilliant work. It has been praised, dissected, lambasted, interpreted, and reinterpreted. Originally published in 1930, it seeks to answer several questions fundamental to human society and its organization: What influences led to the creation of civilization? Why and how did it come to be? What determines civilization’s trajectory? Sigmund Freud enumerates the fundamental tensions between civilization and the individual. The primary friction stems from the individual’s quest for instinctual freedom and civilization’s contrary demand for conformity and instinctual repression. Many of humankind’s primitive instincts (for example, the desire to kill and the insatiable craving for sexual gratification) are clearly harmful to the well-being of a human community. As a result, civilization creates laws that prohibit killing, rape, and adultery, and it implements severe punishments if such commandments are broken. This process, argues Freud, is an inherent quality of civilization that instills perpetual feelings of discontent in its citizens.

"Civilization and its Discontent" by Sigmund Freud

Written in the decade before Freud’s death, Civilization and Its Discontents may be his most famous and most brilliant work. It has been praised, dissected, lambasted, interpreted, and reinterpreted. Originally published in 1930, it seeks to answer several questions fundamental to human society and its organization: What influences led to the creation of civilization? Why and how did it come to be? What determines civilization’s trajectory? Sigmund Freud enumerates the fundamental tensions between civilization and the individual. The primary friction stems from the individual’s quest for instinctual freedom and civilization’s contrary demand for conformity and instinctual repression. Many of humankind’s primitive instincts (for example, the desire to kill and the insatiable craving for sexual gratification) are clearly harmful to the well-being of a human community. As a result, civilization creates laws that prohibit killing, rape, and adultery, and it implements severe punishments if such commandments are broken. This process, argues Freud, is an inherent quality of civilization that instills perpetual feelings of discontent in its citizens.

What I’ve read this year

Bold = books I enjoyed the most

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl
Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography by Rüdiger Safranski
Les faux-monnayeurs (The Counterfeiters) by André Gide
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown
The Miso Soup by Ryū Murakami
The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein
1917: Russia’s Year of Revolution by Roy Bainton
Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler
Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt by Chris Hedges & Joe Sacco
Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945 by Tony Judt
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
Précis de décomposition (A Short History of Decay) by Emil Cioran
La Vérité sur l’Affaire Harry Québert by Joël Dicker
The Coming Insurrection by the Invisible Committee 
In Praise of Idleness by Bertrand Russell
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Key Kesey
Homosexuality & Civilization by Louis Crompton
The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker
À la recherche du temps perdu: Du coté de chez Swann (In Search of Lost Time: Swann’s Way) by Marcel Proust
The Penal Colony by Franz Kafka
Man in the Holocene by Max Frisch
Consuming Life by Zygmund Bauman
The Geography of Nowhere by James Howard Kunstler
An Edible History of Humanity by Tom Standage
Tu montreras ma tête au peuple by Francois-Henri Désérable
The Soul of Man Under Socialism by Oscar Wilde
To Save Everything, Click Here by Evgeny Morozov
History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell
The Burning Question by Mike Berners-Lee
Everything was Forever, Until it was No More by Alexei Yurchak
The Case for Animal Rights by Tom Regan
Profit Over People by Noam Chomsky
Confronting Consumption by Thomas Princen
A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit
How Shall I Live my Life? by Derrick Jensen
Madness: a Very Short Introduction by Andrew T. Scull
Proud Beggars by Albert Cossery
Marx for Beginners by Rius
Ecology & Socialism by Chris Williams
Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace
Minima Moralia by Theodor Adorno
Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life by Kari Marie Norgaard
Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution by Ruth Scurr

Sanctuaire 1/2/3 by Xavier Dorison
Tintin 1/2/3/4/5 by Hergé
The Walking Dead Vol. 18: What Comes After by Robert Kirkman

"Madness: A Very Short Introduction" by Andrew Scull

Madness is something that frightens and fascinates us all. It is a word with which we are universally familiar, and a condition that haunts the human imagination. Through the centuries, in poetry and in prose, in drama and in the visual arts, its depredations are on display for all to see. A whole industry has grown up, devoted to its management and suppression. Madness profoundly disturbs our common sense assumptions; threatens the social order, both symbolically and practically; creates almost unbearable disruptions in the texture of daily living; and turns our experience and our expectations upside down. Lunacy, insanity, psychosis, mental illness - whatever term we prefer, its referents are disturbances of reason, the passions, and human action that frighten, create chaos, and yet sometimes amuse; that mark a gulf between the common sense reality most of us embrace, and the discordant version some humans appear to experience. Social responses to madness, our interpretations of what madness is, and our notions of what is to be done about it have varied remarkably over the centuries. In this Very Short Introduction, Andrew Scull provides a provocative and entertaining examination of the social, cultural, medical, and artistic responses to mental disturbance across more than two millennia, concluding with some observations on the contemporary accounts of mental illness. 

"Madness: A Very Short Introduction" by Andrew Scull

Madness is something that frightens and fascinates us all. It is a word with which we are universally familiar, and a condition that haunts the human imagination. Through the centuries, in poetry and in prose, in drama and in the visual arts, its depredations are on display for all to see. A whole industry has grown up, devoted to its management and suppression. Madness profoundly disturbs our common sense assumptions; threatens the social order, both symbolically and practically; creates almost unbearable disruptions in the texture of daily living; and turns our experience and our expectations upside down. Lunacy, insanity, psychosis, mental illness - whatever term we prefer, its referents are disturbances of reason, the passions, and human action that frighten, create chaos, and yet sometimes amuse; that mark a gulf between the common sense reality most of us embrace, and the discordant version some humans appear to experience. Social responses to madness, our interpretations of what madness is, and our notions of what is to be done about it have varied remarkably over the centuries. In this Very Short Introduction, Andrew Scull provides a provocative and entertaining examination of the social, cultural, medical, and artistic responses to mental disturbance across more than two millennia, concluding with some observations on the contemporary accounts of mental illness. 

Currently Reading:

Confronting Consumption by Thomas Princen, Michael Maniates and Ken Conca

Comforting terms such as “sustainable development” and “green production” frame environmental debate by stressing technology (not green enough), economic growth (not enough in the right places), and population (too large). Concern about consumption emerges, if at all, in benign ways—as calls for green purchasing or more recycling, or for small changes in production processes. Many academics, policymakers, and journalists, in fact, accept the economists’ view of consumption as nothing less than the purpose of the economy. Yet many people have a troubled, intuitive understanding that tinkering at the margins of production and purchasing will not put society on an ecologically and socially sustainable path.

Confronting Consumption places consumption at the center of debate by conceptualizing “the consumption problem” and documenting diverse efforts to confront it. In Part 1, the book frames consumption as a problem of political and ecological economy, emphasizing core concepts of individualization and commoditization. Part 2 develops the idea of distancing and examines transnational chains of consumption in the context of economic globalization. Part 3 describes citizen action through local currencies, home power, voluntary simplicity, “ad-busting,” and product certification. Together, the chapters propose “cautious consuming” and “better producing” as an activist and policy response to environmental problems. The book concludes that confronting consumption must become a driving focus of contemporary environmental scholarship and activism.

A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit

Whether she is contemplating the history of walking as a cultural and political experience over the past two hundred years (Wanderlust), or using the life of photographer Eadweard Muybridge as a lens to discuss the transformations of space and time in late nineteenth-century America (River of Shadows), Rebecca Solnit has emerged as an inventive and original writer whose mind is daring in the connections it makes. A Field Guide to Getting Lost draws on emblematic moments and relationships in Solnit’s own life to explore issues of wandering, being lost, and the uses of the unknown. The result is a distinctive, stimulating, and poignant voyage of discovery.

After which it matters not that the actions, the feelings of this new order of creatures appear to us in the guise of truth, since we have made them our own, since it is in ourselves that they are happening, that they are holding in thrall, while we turn over, feverishly, the pages of the book, our quickened breath and staring eyes. And once the novelist has brought us to that state, in which, as in all purely mental states, every emotion is multiplied ten-fold, into which his book comes to disturb us as might a dream, but a dream more lucid, and of a more lasting impression than those which come to us in sleep; why, then, for the space of an hour he sets free within us all the joys and sorrows in the world, a few of which, only, we should have to spend years of our actual life in getting to know, and the keenest, the most intense of which would never have been revealed to us because the slow course of their development stops our perception of them. It is the same in life; the heart changes, and that is our worst misfortune; but we learn of it only from reading or by imagination; for in reality its alteration, like that of certain natural phenomena, is so gradual that, even if we are able to distinguish, successively, each of its different states, we are still spared the actual sensation of change.
— Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way

Link: The Curse of Reading and Forgetting

… If we are cursed to forget much of what we read, there are still charms in the moments of reading a particular book in a particular place. What I remember most about Malamud’s short-story collection “The Magic Barrel,” is the warm sunlight in the coffee shop on the consecutive Friday mornings I read it before high school. That is missing the more important points, but it is something. Reading has many facets, one of which might be the rather indescribable, and naturally fleeting, mix of thought and emotion and sensory manipulations that happen in the moment and then fade. How much of reading, then, is just a kind of narcissism—a marker of who you were and what you were thinking when you encountered a text? Perhaps thinking of that book later, a trace of whatever admixture moved you while reading it will spark out of the brain’s dark places.

Memory, however, is capricious and deeply unfair. It is why I can recall nothing about how a cell divides, or very little about “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” but can sing any number of television theme songs in the shower. (“Touch has a memory,” Keats wrote—but I can’t find my copy of his complete poems to test the theory, and, anyway, I found that quote on Goodreads.) The words that researchers use about forgetting are all psychically hurtful for the lay person: interference, confusion, decay—they seem sinister and remind us of all the sad limitations of the human brain, and of an inevitable march toward another kind of forgetting, which comes with age, and what may be final forgetting, which is death. Yet those same researchers are also quick to reassure us. Everybody forgets. And forgetting may even be a key to memory itself—a psychobiological necessity rather than a character flaw. That could be, but I still wish I could remember who did what to whom in D. H. Lawrence’s “Women in Love”—and the actual, rather than pompous and pretend, reasons why I’ve told people that I preferred “Sons and Lovers.” Or is it the other way around?

This may be a minor existential drama—and it might simply be resolved with practical application and a renewed sense of studiousness. There is ongoing dispute as to the ways in which memory might, in a general sense, be improvable. But certainly there are things that we can do to better remember the books we read—especially the ones that we want to remember (some novels, like some moments in life, are best forgotten).

A simple remedy to forgetfulness is to read novels more than once. A professor I had in college would often, to the point of irony, cite Nabokov’s statement that there is no reading, only rereading. Yet he was teaching a class in modern fiction, and assigned books that are generally known as “slim” contemporary classics. They were short, and we were being tested on them—we’d be foolish to read them only once. I read them at least twice, and now remember them. But what about in real life, set loose from comprehension examinations and left mostly to our own devices and standards? Should we reread when there is a nearly endless shelf of books out there to read and a certainly not-endless amount of time in which to do it? Should I pull out my copy of Eudora Welty’s “The Optimist’s Daughter” to relearn its charms—or more truthfully, learn them for the first time—or should I accept the loss, and move on?

Part of my suspicion of rereading may come from a false sense of reading as conquest. As we polish off some classic text, we may pause a moment to think of ourselves, spear aloft, standing with one foot up on the flank of the slain beast. Another monster bagged. It would be somehow less heroic, as it were, to bend over and check the thing’s pulse. But that, of course, is the stuff of reading—the going back, the poring over, the act of committing something from the experience, whether it be mood or fact, to memory. It is in the postmortem where we learn how a book really works. Maybe, then, for a forgetful reader like me, the great task, and the greatest enjoyment, would be to read a single novel over and over again. At some point, then, I would truly and honestly know it.


One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

Tyrannical Nurse Ratched rules her ward in an Oregon State mental hospital with a strict and unbending routine, unopposed by her patients, who remain cowed by mind-numbing medication and the threat of electric shock therapy. But her regime is disrupted by the arrival of McMurphy – the swaggering, fun-loving trickster with a devilish grin who resolves to oppose her rules on behalf of his fellow inmates. His struggle is seen through the eyes of Chief Bromden, a seemingly mute half-Indian patient who understands McMurphy’s heroic attempt to do battle with the powers that keep them imprisoned. Ken Kesey’s extraordinary first novel is an exuberant, ribald and devastatingly honest portrayal of the boundaries between sanity and madness.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

Tyrannical Nurse Ratched rules her ward in an Oregon State mental hospital with a strict and unbending routine, unopposed by her patients, who remain cowed by mind-numbing medication and the threat of electric shock therapy. But her regime is disrupted by the arrival of McMurphy – the swaggering, fun-loving trickster with a devilish grin who resolves to oppose her rules on behalf of his fellow inmates. His struggle is seen through the eyes of Chief Bromden, a seemingly mute half-Indian patient who understands McMurphy’s heroic attempt to do battle with the powers that keep them imprisoned. Ken Kesey’s extraordinary first novel is an exuberant, ribald and devastatingly honest portrayal of the boundaries between sanity and madness.

The Coming Insurrection by The Invisible Committee
"Thirty years of "crisis," mass unemployment, and flagging growth, and they still want us to believe in the economy…. We have to see that the economy is itself the crisis. It’s not that there’s not enough work, it’s that there is too much of it."
The Coming Insurrection is an eloquent call to arms arising from the recent waves of social contestation in France and Europe. Written by the anonymous Invisible Committee in the vein of Guy Debord—and with comparable elegance—it has been proclaimed a manual for terrorism by the French government (who recently arrested its alleged authors). One of its members more adequately described the group as “the name given to a collective voice bent on denouncing contemporary cynicism and reality.” The Coming Insurrection is a strategic prescription for an emergent war-machine capable of “spreading anarchy and live communism.”Written in the wake of the riots that erupted throughout the Paris suburbs in the fall of 2005 and presaging more recent riots and general strikes in France and Greece, The Coming Insurrection articulates a rejection of the official Left and its reformist agenda, aligning itself instead with the younger, wilder forms of resistance that have emerged in Europe around recent struggles against immigration control and the “war on terror.”Hot-wired to the movement of ‘77 in Italy, its preferred historical reference point, The Coming Insurrection formulates an ethics that takes as its starting point theft, sabotage, the refusal to work, and the elaboration of collective, self-organized life forms. It is a philosophical statement that addresses the growing number of those—in France, in the United States, and elsewhere—who refuse the idea that theory, politics, and life are separate realms.

The Coming Insurrection by The Invisible Committee

"Thirty years of "crisis," mass unemployment, and flagging growth, and they still want us to believe in the economy…. We have to see that the economy is itself the crisis. It’s not that there’s not enough work, it’s that there is too much of it."

The Coming Insurrection is an eloquent call to arms arising from the recent waves of social contestation in France and Europe. Written by the anonymous Invisible Committee in the vein of Guy Debord—and with comparable elegance—it has been proclaimed a manual for terrorism by the French government (who recently arrested its alleged authors). One of its members more adequately described the group as “the name given to a collective voice bent on denouncing contemporary cynicism and reality.” The Coming Insurrection is a strategic prescription for an emergent war-machine capable of “spreading anarchy and live communism.”Written in the wake of the riots that erupted throughout the Paris suburbs in the fall of 2005 and presaging more recent riots and general strikes in France and Greece, The Coming Insurrection articulates a rejection of the official Left and its reformist agenda, aligning itself instead with the younger, wilder forms of resistance that have emerged in Europe around recent struggles against immigration control and the “war on terror.”Hot-wired to the movement of ‘77 in Italy, its preferred historical reference point, The Coming Insurrection formulates an ethics that takes as its starting point theft, sabotage, the refusal to work, and the elaboration of collective, self-organized life forms. It is a philosophical statement that addresses the growing number of those—in France, in the United States, and elsewhere—who refuse the idea that theory, politics, and life are separate realms.


Orientalism by Edward W. Said
In this highly acclaimed work, Edward Said surveys the history and nature of Western attitudes towards the East, considering Orientalism as a powerful European ideological creation – a way for writers, philosophers and colonial administrators to deal with the ‘otherness’ of Eastern culture, customs and beliefs. He traces this view through the writings of Homer, Nerval and Flaubert, Disraeli and Kipling, whose imaginative depictions have greatly contributed to the West’s romantic and exotic picture of the Orient. In his new preface, Said examines the effect of continuing Western imperialism after recent events in Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Orientalism by Edward Said is a cononical text of cultural studies in which he has challenged the concept of orientalism or the difference between east and west, as he puts it. He says that with the start of European colonization the Europeans came in contact with the lesser developed countries of the east. They found their civilization and culture very exotic, and established the science of orientalism, which was the study of the orientals or the people from these exotic civilization.
Edward Said argues that the Europeans divided the world into two parts; the east and the west or the occident and the orient or the civilized and the uncivilized. This was totally an artificial boundary; and it was laid on the basis of the concept of them and us or theirs and ours. The Europeans used orientalism to define themselves. Some particular attributes were associated with the orientals, and whatever the orientals weren’t the occidents were. The Europeans defined themselves as the superior race compared to the orientals; and they justified their colonization by this concept. They said that it was their duty towards the world to civilize the uncivilized world. The main problem, however, arose when the Europeans started generalizing the attributes they associated with orientals, and started portraying these artificial characteristics associated with orientals in their western world through their scientific reports, literary work, and other media sources. What happened was that it created a certain image about the orientals in the European mind and in doing that infused a bias in the European attitude towards the orientals. This prejudice was also found in the orientalists (scientist studying the orientals); and all their scientific research and reports were under the influence of this. The generalized attributes associated with the orientals can be seen even today, for example, the Arabs are defined as uncivilized people; and Islam is seen as religion of the terrorist.
"So far as the United States seems to be concerned, it is only a slight overstatement to say that Muslims and Arabs are essentially seen as either oil suppliers or potential terrorists. Very little of the detail, the human density, the passion of Arab-Moslem life has entered the awareness of even those people whose profession it is to report the Arab world. What we have instead is a series of crude, essentialized caricatures of the Islamic world presented in such a way as to make that world vulnerable to military aggression." —Edward W. Said

Orientalism by Edward W. Said

In this highly acclaimed work, Edward Said surveys the history and nature of Western attitudes towards the East, considering Orientalism as a powerful European ideological creation – a way for writers, philosophers and colonial administrators to deal with the ‘otherness’ of Eastern culture, customs and beliefs. He traces this view through the writings of Homer, Nerval and Flaubert, Disraeli and Kipling, whose imaginative depictions have greatly contributed to the West’s romantic and exotic picture of the Orient. In his new preface, Said examines the effect of continuing Western imperialism after recent events in Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Orientalism by Edward Said is a cononical text of cultural studies in which he has challenged the concept of orientalism or the difference between east and west, as he puts it. He says that with the start of European colonization the Europeans came in contact with the lesser developed countries of the east. They found their civilization and culture very exotic, and established the science of orientalism, which was the study of the orientals or the people from these exotic civilization.

Edward Said argues that the Europeans divided the world into two parts; the east and the west or the occident and the orient or the civilized and the uncivilized. This was totally an artificial boundary; and it was laid on the basis of the concept of them and us or theirs and ours. The Europeans used orientalism to define themselves. Some particular attributes were associated with the orientals, and whatever the orientals weren’t the occidents were. The Europeans defined themselves as the superior race compared to the orientals; and they justified their colonization by this concept. They said that it was their duty towards the world to civilize the uncivilized world. The main problem, however, arose when the Europeans started generalizing the attributes they associated with orientals, and started portraying these artificial characteristics associated with orientals in their western world through their scientific reports, literary work, and other media sources. What happened was that it created a certain image about the orientals in the European mind and in doing that infused a bias in the European attitude towards the orientals. This prejudice was also found in the orientalists (scientist studying the orientals); and all their scientific research and reports were under the influence of this. The generalized attributes associated with the orientals can be seen even today, for example, the Arabs are defined as uncivilized people; and Islam is seen as religion of the terrorist.

"So far as the United States seems to be concerned, it is only a slight overstatement to say that Muslims and Arabs are essentially seen as either oil suppliers or potential terrorists. Very little of the detail, the human density, the passion of Arab-Moslem life has entered the awareness of even those people whose profession it is to report the Arab world. What we have instead is a series of crude, essentialized caricatures of the Islamic world presented in such a way as to make that world vulnerable to military aggression." —Edward W. Said

Link: John Jeremiah Sullivan on Reading

“I want to be an educated, well-read, cultured, critically thinking person but need some stuff to read,” asks an anonymous reader in the Ask The Paris Review section. The letter and the response from the Paris Review to this cry for help are bellow:

Dear Paris Review,

I live in the deep south and was raised in a religious cult.

Still with me?

Okay. I’m attempting to throw off the shackles of my religious upbringing and become an intelligent well-informed adult. My primary source of rebellion thus far has been movies. I would watch a Fellini movie and then feel suddenly superior to my friends and family because they only watched movies in their native tongue (trust me I know how pathetic this is). My main question involves my reading selections. Obviously, I have stumbled upon your publication and am aware of its status as the primary literary periodical in English. Also, I have a brand-new subscription to the New York Review of Books, since it is apparently the intellectual center of the English-speaking universe. I am not in an M.F.A. program or living in Brooklyn working on the Great American Kindle Single, I’m just a working-class guy trying to take part in the conversation that all the smart people are having. This brings me to my question: What books should I read? There are so many books out there worth reading, that I literally don’t know where to start. To give you some background info: I was not raised as a reader and was not taught any literature in the Christian high school that I attended. What kinds of books do I like? My answer to that would be movies. I’m desperate to start some kind of grand reading plan that will educate me about the world but don’t know where to start. The classics? Which ones? Modern stuff? Should I alternate one classic with one recent book? How much should I read fiction? How much should I read nonfiction? I went to college but it was for nursing, so I have never been taught anything about reading by anybody.

I realize this stuff may be outside of your comfort zone, as most of the advice questions seem to be from aspiring writers or college-educated people. Please believe me when I say that I am out of touch with the modern world because of a very specific religious cult. I want to be an educated, well-read, cultured, critically thinking person but need some stuff to read. Before I end this letter, I’ll provide an example of just how out of touch I am: you know how “Ms.” is the non-sexist way to refer to a woman, and that “Mrs.” is sexist? Yeah, I just found out about that. I’m twenty-five.


Dear DODS,

What kind of soulless freak could fail to answer your call? Your intelligence glows through your professed ignorance (as does the authenticity of “a very specific religious cult”). That sounds like an educationally less-than-ideal but, in other ways, fascinating childhood. My only piece of advice before recommending some titles would be: don’t fall for the inferiority/superiority racket. We’re not on a ladder here. We’re on a web. Right now you’re experiencing a desire to become more aware of and sensitive to its other strands. That feeling you’re having is culture. Whatever feeds that, go with it. And never forget that well-educated people pretend to know on average at least two-thirds more books than they’ve actually read.

A place to start is with Guy Davenport’s nonfiction collections, Every Force Evolves a Form, The Geography of the Imagination, and The Hunter Gracchus (with more pieces in The Death of Picasso). You’ll learn an enormous amount from these essays and sketches, but almost without realizing, because they give off the pleasure of great stories. Read the title essay in The Hunter Gracchus (about Kafka and the way symbols can take on a life of their own), and see if it isn’t as stimulating and creepy as the last good movie you saw.

Come up with a system of note-taking that you can use in your reading. It’s okay if it evolves. You can write in the margins, or keep a reading notebook (my preference) where you transcribe passages you like, with your own observations, and mark down the names of other, unfamiliar writers, books you’ve seen mentioned (Guy D. alone will give you a notebook full of these). Follow those notes to decide your next reading. That’s how you’ll create your own interior library. Now do that for the rest of your life and die knowing you’re still massively ignorant. (I wouldn’t trade it!)

Read My Ántonia, and then read everything else by Willa Cather. Inside her novels you’ll find it impossible to doubt that high enjoyment and extreme depth can go together. The most difficult art.

Read Isak Dinesen’s Seven Gothic Tales. I’m saying that randomly, because it seems right, and to approve the spirit of randomness.

If you get into a writer, go all the way and check out everything he/she has written. This summer I fell into a Defoe hole. Started with the major stuff, the best novels and the good journalism, and then read everything down to the poems and the tedious political pamphlets, since by that point I was equally interested in him as a human being and wanted to have as accurate a map of the inside of his brain as possible. His is one of the minds that helped shape the modern world—we’re literally still telling his stories—so there’s a vital interest. I read Maximilian Novak’s super-solid biography of him, Master of Fictions. That sort of questy reading ends up enriching your experience of each individual book and piece, and it lends a sense of adventure to the whole business, which after all involves a lot of lying down or sitting on your ass.

Borges and Denis Johnson—anything by either. Edith Wharton’s story “The Young Gentlemen.” (Random, random.) Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, and then his poems if you’re feeling spry. Find on the Web and buy an old paperback copy of the Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine–edited anthology Six Centuries of Great Poetry (a book for life). Read the next two things I’m going to read and then see how you like them: Grant’s Memoirs and Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle. Read Nabokov’s Speak, Memory and Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem.

Books that got me kick-started were the great modernist biographies, especially Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era and Richard Ellmann’s life of James Joyce. Read those two books and you’ll have a decent-size grid on which to plot the rest of your reading. I’m somehow moved to spurt out, Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World. People have been writing about Shakespeare for half a millennium, and the very best of it just happened.

Ignore all of this and read the next cool-looking book you see lying around. It’s not the where-you-start so much as the that-you-don’t-stop. I was reading Phoenix Force novels until I was like thirteen. These days a lot of people I know are into Murakami. I should have said more novels. If it’s by a Russian, read it.

Incidentally, I use the word reader very loosely. Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader. And I shall tell you why. When we read a book for the first time the very process of laboriously moving our eyes from left to right, line after line, page after page, this complicated physical work upon the book, the very process of learning in terms of space and time what the book is about, this stands between us and artistic appreciation. When we look at a painting we do not have to move our eyes in a special way even if, as in a book, the picture contains elements of depth and development. The element of time does not really enter in a first contact with a painting. In reading a book, we must have time to acquaint ourselves with it. We have no physical organ (as we have the eye in regard to a painting) that takes in the whole picture and then can enjoy its details. But at a second, or third, or fourth reading we do, in a sense, behave towards a book as we do towards a painting. However, let us not confuse the physical eye, that monstrous masterpiece of evolution, with the mind, an even more monstrous achievement. A book, no matter what it is—a work of fiction or a work of science (the boundary line between the two is not as clear as is generally believed)—a book of fiction appeals first of all to the mind. The mind, the brain, the top of the tingling spine, is, or should be, the only instrument used upon a book.

Link: Excerpt from They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45” by Milton Mayer

“What happened here was the gradual habituation of the people, little by little, to being governed by surprise; to receiving decisions deliberated in secret; to believing that the situation was so complicated that the government had to act on information which the people could not understand, or so dangerous that, even if the people could not understand it, it could not be released because of national security. And their sense of identification with Hitler, their trust in him, made it easier to widen this gap and reassured those who would otherwise have worried about it. This separation of government from people, this widening of the gap, took place so gradually and so insensibly, each step disguised (perhaps not even intentionally) as a temporary emergency measure or associated with true patriotic allegiance or with real social purposes. And all the crises and reforms (real reforms, too) so occupied the people that they did not see the slow motion underneath, of the whole process of government growing remoter and remoter. […] To live in this process is absolutely not to be able to notice it—please try to believe me—unless one has a much greater degree of political awareness, acuity, than most of us had ever had occasion to develop. Each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, ‘regretted,’ that, unless one were detached from the whole process from the beginning, unless one understood what the whole thing was in principle, what all these ‘little measures’ that no ‘patriotic German’ could resent must some day lead to, one no more saw it developing from day to day than a farmer in his field sees the corn growing. One day it is over his head.

(Source: sunrec, via sunrec)

Link: A Night in Arzamas

How Tolstoy’s obsession with mortality became a teachable moment.

In 1869, just after he finished War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy experienced a profound spiritual crisis as the result of an incident during a journey through the city of Arzamas, which is on the Tyosha River about 250 miles east of Moscow. As he described it in his unfinished story Notes of a Madman (so titled because Tolstoy was convinced his readers would find the tale implausible), a few hours after midnight he awakened “seized by despair, fear and terror such as [he had] never before experienced.” After asking himself what there was to be afraid of, none other than Death himself answered, “I am here.” Tolstoy, confronting the inescapability of his own death, panicked and raged against its power.

That evening stayed with Tolstoy for the rest of his life; he became permanently preoccupied with mortality. Writing his Confessions a decade later, Tolstoy would ask: “Is there any meaning in my life that will not be destroyed by my inevitably approaching death?” “He engaged in long and laborious meditations”, wrote Tolstoy’s long-suffering wife, Sonya. “Often he said his brain hurt him, some painful process was going on inside it, everything was over for him, it was time for him to die.”

Tolstoy’s “Arzamas Horror”, as the Russian dramatist Maxim Gorky called it, also served as the basis for his masterful novella, The Death of Ivan Ilych. In this slim book, a 45-year-old Russian judge realizes he is dying and acknowledges that he has wasted his life attaining comfort and status. While outwardly appearing successful, Ilych suffers from an unhappy marriage, a meaningless career and a selfish existence. “Ivan Ilych’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible”, reads one typically devastating Tolstoyan line.

Melancholy as this is, the most harrowing parts of the story lie in Ilych’s terror at confronting his own mortality, much as Tolstoy had years earlier in the dark morning hours in Arzamas. Perhaps nowhere else in all of world literature is the sheer horror of the fact of death laid so bare: “He would go to his study, lie down, and again remain alone with it. Face to face with it, and there was nothing to be done with it. Only look at it and go cold.”

(Source: sunrec)