Later On

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Shaving with a feather-light touch

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Marvelous shave today—I’m happy to move the two-day stubble shave back to Monday: it seems right, like clearing the decks for action (which I write as a devoted fan of Patrick O’Brian’s series of novels of the British Navy in the Napoleonic era, which begins with Master and Commander—read them in order).

The Fine slant is an excellent slant if used with a very light touch, as suggested by its very light weight. I did select the D.R. Harris Rose shaving cream for its cushioning and protective lather, and it did the job with a fine fragrance (so “fine” all around).

Three light passes and my face was perfectly smooth. A splash of Geo. F. Trumper’s Coral Skin Food, which also has a rose fragrance, and the week is well launched.

Written by LeisureGuy

17 September 2018 at 7:47 am

Posted in Books, Shaving

Are Audiobooks As Good For You As Reading A Printed Book?

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Markham Heid reports in TIME:

Even for people who love books, finding the opportunity to read can be a challenge. Many, then, rely on audiobooks, a convenient alternative to old-fashioned reading. You can listen to the latest bestseller while commuting or cleaning up the house.

But is listening to a book really the same as reading one?

“I was a fan of audiobooks, but I always viewed them as cheating,” says Beth Rogowsky, an associate professor of education at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania.

For a 2016 study, Rogowsky put her assumptions to the test. One group in her study listened to sections of Unbroken, a nonfiction book about World War II by Laura Hillenbrand, while a second group read the same parts on an e-reader. She included a third group that both read and listened at the same time. Afterward, everyone took a quiz designed to measure how well they had absorbed the material. “We found no significant differences in comprehension between reading, listening, or reading and listening simultaneously,” Rogowsky says.

Score one for audiobooks? Maybe. But Rogowsky’s study used e-readers rather than traditional print books, and there’s some evidence that reading on a screen reduces learning and comprehension compared to reading from printed text. So it’s possible that, had her study pitted traditional books against audiobooks, old-school reading might have come out on top.

If you’re wondering why printed books may be better than screen-based reading, it may have to do with your inability to gauge where you are in an electronic book. “As you’re reading a narrative, the sequence of events is important, and knowing where you are in a book helps you build that arc of narrative,” says Daniel Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and author of Raising Kids Who Read. While e-readers try to replicate this by telling you how much of a book you have left, in a percentage or length of time to the end, this doesn’t seem to have the same narrative-orienting effect as reading from a traditional book.

The fact that printed text is anchored to a specific location on a page also seems to help people remember it better than screen-based text, according to more research on the spatial attributes of traditional printed media. All this may be relevant to the audiobook vs. book debate because, like digital screens, audiobooks deny users the spatial cues they would use while reading from printed text.

The self-directed rhythms associated with reading may also differentiate books from audiobooks.

“About 10 to 15% of eye movements during reading are actually regressive—meaning [the eyes are] going back and re-checking,” Willingham explains. “This happens very quickly, and it’s sort of seamlessly stitched into the process of reading a sentence.” He says this reading quirk almost certainly bolsters comprehension, and it may be roughly comparable to a listener asking for a speaker to “hold on” or repeat something. “Even as you’re asking, you’re going over in your mind’s ear what the speaker just said,” he says. Theoretically, you can also pause or jump back while listening to an audio file. “But it’s more trouble,” he adds.

Another consideration is that whether we’re reading or listening to a text, our minds occasionally wander. Seconds (or minutes) can pass before we snap out of these little mental sojourns and refocus our attention, says David Daniel, a professor of psychology at James Madison University and a member of a National Academy of Sciences project aimed at understanding how people learn.

If you’re reading, it’s pretty easy to go back and find the point at which you zoned out. It’s not so easy if you’re listening to a recording, Daniel says. Especially if you’re grappling with a complicated text, the ability to quickly backtrack and re-examine the material may aid learning, and this is likely easier to do while reading than while listening. “Turning the page of a book also gives you a slight break,” he says. This brief pause may create space for your brain to store or savor the information you’re absorbing.

Daniel coauthored a 2010 study that found students who listened to a podcast lesson performed worse on a comprehension quiz than students who read the same lesson on paper. “And the podcast group did a lot worse, not a little worse,” he says. Compared to the readers, the listeners scored an average of 28% lower on the quiz—about the difference between an A or a D grade, he says.

Interestingly, at the start of the experiment, almost all the students wanted to be in the podcast group. “But then right before I gave them the quiz, I asked them again which group they would want to be in, and most of them had changed their minds—they wanted to be in the reading group,” Daniel says. “They knew they hadn’t learned as much.”

He says it’s possible that, with practice, the listeners might be able to make up ground on the readers. “We get good at what we do, and you could become a better listener if you trained yourself to listen more critically,” he says. (The same could be true of screen-based reading; some research suggests that people who practice “screen learning” get better at it.)

But there may also be some “structural hurdles” that impede learning from audio material, Daniels says. For one thing, you can’t underline or highlight something you hear. And many of the “This is important!” cues that show up in text books—things like bolded words or boxed bits of critical info—aren’t easily emphasized in audio-based media.

But audiobooks also have some strengths. . .

Continue reading.

When I listened to audiobooks on my commute some years back, I found that non-fiction was difficult to follow (absence of characters, conflict, and story arc) and that modern novels were also hard to follow (because most modern novels use abrupt jumps that are signaled typographically—e.g., extra space indicating a jump: obvious if you’re looking at the page, not obvious to the ear). However, novels of the 19th century, often written to be read aloud, are terrific. Great Expectations as read by Frank Mueller was wonderful.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 September 2018 at 1:56 pm

Posted in Books, Education, Science

“I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Plainview High Cheer Squad”

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Emily Flake writes in the New Yorker:

Cheer captain Jenna Kelly is a psycho hose beast and everybody knows it, but nobody’s got the guts to come out and say it to her face.

It’s not just that she made Kayleigh Fielder cry outside the band room. Or that she hooked up with Olivia DeSantis’s boyfriend a week before junior prom. Or that she’s been spreading rumors that Mrs. Sullivan is doing coke in the teachers’ lounge, even though Mrs. Sullivan is THE NICEST and would never.

The problem is that she doesn’t even know how many of us hate her guts, and how many people there are here at Plainview who are planning to take her down.

I should know. I’m one of them.

Look, I’m not some total dork loser who spends every night editing Wikipedia pages about my favorite anime characters. I’m on the varsity squad and the homecoming court. I got retweeted by Bono. Plainview Panther Cheer Squad is special, and we’d like to keep it that way.

It’s no secret why Jenna’s so popular. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

7 September 2018 at 3:22 pm

Finding out someone is INTJ is no more helpful than finding out they’re an Aquarius

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You might as well use Tarot cards or the I Ching and be done with it. Louis Menand writes in the New Yorker:

There are two kinds of people in the world: people who think there are two kinds of people in the world and people who don’t. Katharine Briggs and Isabel Myers were the first kind, and the test they invented based on that belief, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, or MBTI, is the most popular personality test in the world. More than two million people take it every year. It is used in twenty-six countries to assess employees, students, soldiers, and potential marriage partners. It is used by Fortune 500 companies and universities, in self-improvement seminars and wellness retreats. There are more than two thousand personality tests on the market, many of them blatant knockoffs of the MBTI, but Myers-Briggs is No. 1. Merve Emre’s “The Personality Brokers” (Doubleday) is the story of how the MBTI fell to earth.

It was a long descent. Briggs and Myers were a mother-and-daughter team. To call them “mildly eccentric” would be indulging in a gender stereotype, but it seems fair to say that they were a little O.C.D. They devoted their lives to their system, and they kept the faith for a very long time. If they had not, there would be no MBTI today.

The mother, Katharine Cook Briggs, was born in 1875. When she died, in 1968, the test she inspired was all but forgotten. The daughter, Isabel Briggs Myers, was born in 1897. She codified her mother’s method of categorizing personalities, copyrighted it (in 1943), and spent the rest of her life trying to find a permanent home for the product. She died in 1980, just as the test’s popularity was taking off.

Since Katharine began studying personality differences when Isabel was four, this means that the two women persisted for almost eighty years before the MBTI became the commercial bonanza it is today. According to Emre, personality testing has become a two-billion-dollar industry. But Briggs and Myers were not in the personality game for the money. They truly believed that they had discovered a way to make work more efficient and human beings less unhappy.

Emre’s book follows closely the account of the development of the MBTI given in Annie Murphy Paul’s “The Cult of Personality Testing,” published in 2004 (a work that Emre surprisingly does not acknowledge). Both books describe Briggs and Myers as intellectually driven women in an era when career opportunities for intellectually driven women were slim. Neither one had any training in psychology or in psychiatry—or, for that matter, in testing—and neither ever worked in a laboratory or an academic institution. A third woman, Mary McCaulley, who came upon the test in 1968, the year Katharine died, was a professor of psychology at the University of Florida. She teamed up with Isabel, and was indispensable in turning the MBTI into a professional operation. But, essentially, the MBTI was home-cooked.

It arose out of one of the most mundane domestic circumstances—the fact that the members of a family often differ in tiny but stubbornly irreducible ways. One spouse is a planner and the other is spur of the moment. One child has a million friends and another child is a loner. In the home, differences like these are magnified, because people are less self-conscious and because enforced intimacy generates friction. But at work, too, people have noticeably divergent ways of operating.

Sibling and spousal differences are the kind of thing that might attract the interest of a housewife deprived of other ways to exercise her brain, and that’s what happened with Katharine Briggs. The key to the MBTI’s success is her insight that you can waste a lot of energy and bring on a lot of psychic pain if you think of these differences as incompatibilities that have to be ironed out. The differences are innate, and each type of personality is as “normal” as the others. There is no better way to be—logical or emotional, spontaneous or organized, party bro or brooder. These are not imperfections to be corrected. They are hardwired dispositions to be recognized and accommodated.

In the workplace, this means assigning tasks to people based on their personality types, which is one of the things that the MBTI is supposed to help companies do. (Emre says that the office-furniture designer Herman Miller uses a modified version of the MBTI to create chairs and desks for different personalities.) In life, it means recognizing that we are naturally more likely to get along with some people than with others, and that when people aren’t communicating it can simply be because they are broadcasting on different frequencies. We need to get used to it.

The MBTI folks therefore do not refer to their device—a ninety-three-item, a-or-b format questionnaire that subjects are not supposed to take a lot of time filling out—as a “test.” The MBTI is not something you can pass or fail. The MBTI is an “indicator,” and what it is meant to indicate is the type of personality you have been born with.

The theory behind the MBTI, actually, is not that there are two kinds of people in the world. It’s that there are sixteen kinds of people in the world, but that each personality type reduces to a set of elements taken from four either/or binaries. Everyone is either extroverted or introverted, sensing (meaning relying on sense data) or intuitive, thinking or feeling, judging or perceiving.

Your “score” on the test is the combination of the four characteristics indicated by your answers to the ninety-three questions, which ask such things as “In reading for pleasure, do you (a) Enjoy odd or original ways of saying things; or (b) Like writers to say exactly what they mean?” (It’s unclear why these are mutually exclusive alternatives.) Using an initial for each characteristic, with N standing for intuition, you can be scored an ESTJ, an INFP, or one of the remaining fourteen four-letter combinations. Emre says that using this initial shorthand is called “speaking type.”

The MBTI is different from other tests with high name recognition, like the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI)—first published in 1943, the year Myers copyrighted the MBTI—because the MMPI is used in the diagnosis of psychiatric disorders, and the Myers-Briggs test is a human-resources technology, a nonjudgmental way of people-sorting. It is not designed to pick out the neurotics.

But the MBTI is also promoted as a means of self-discovery, and that is undoubtedly why it is so widely used today. . .

Continue reading.

His column concludes:

. . . One can find fault with the MBTI, and no doubt with many personality-assessment mechanisms. But there is no escaping types. We freely diagnose people all the time—as extroverts or narcissists, as “on the spectrum” or (for example) “a little O.C.D.” We hardly know the clinical definitions of terms like these, but a lot of interpersonal relations are navigated with their assistance.

As for tests, professors are the last people who should object to society’s people-sorting operations. People-sorting is what educational systems do. The process is much more fine-grained than a ninety-three-item questionnaire, but that’s why college is so expensive. It provides employers with a dossier that sums up a graduate’s aptitude and potential in a few pages and numbers, with two or three Latin words maybe added on.

And, like the MBTI, education helps people discover who they are—what they like doing, what they’re good at. To the extent that graduates then list these traits in their job-application letters, they are commodifying their personalities, it’s true. But personal qualities have value in service and information economies. As for surveillance regimes: your browser already knows what kind of person you are a thousand times more intimately than any test will ever reveal.

Written by LeisureGuy

7 September 2018 at 2:54 pm

Crazytown: A Bob Woodward Book, an Anonymous New York Times Op-Ed, and a Growing Crisis for the Trump Presidency

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Susan B. Glasser writes in the New Yorker:

On Wednesday morning, the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, walked out to address the cameras stationed in front of the West Wing and offered one of the week’s most unintentionally revealing comments. The first reports were out about the contents of Bob Woodward’s damning new account of the Trump Administration, “Fear: Trump in the White House,” and she was trying, not all that successfully, to downplay and deny the book’s sorry chronicle of internal chaos, dissension, and dismay within the White House over the President’s behavior. “I haven’t read a lot of his books,” she said, of Woodward, before going on to dismiss his latest as fiction.

Trump is the eighth President of the United States to have been subjected to the Woodward treatment, and, had Sanders read his previous works, she would have known exactly what to expect: a devastating reported account of the Trump Presidency that will be consulted as a first draft of the grim history it portrays long after the best-sellers by Michael Wolff and Omarosa Manigault Newman have been forgotten. Merely dismissing it as fiction was never going to work. The book begins with what Woodward calls “an administrative coup d’etat”—Trump’s former chief economic adviser deciding to steal key papers off the President’s Oval Office desk in order to stop him from pulling out of a South Korean free-trade deal as tensions escalated with North Korea last summer. The book ends with the President’s lawyer John Dowd quitting his legal team, concluding that he could no longer represent someone he believed to be “a fucking liar.”

As Sanders spoke to reporters on Wednesday, her White House colleagues told journalists that they had only just managed to obtain a copy of the book, which does not go on sale to the public until next week. Up until then, they were left with the excerpts in the Washington Post, the New York Times, and CNN, which mostly emphasized, as Dwight Garner put it, in the Times, that “if this book has a single point to drive home, it is that the president of the United States is a congenital liar.” Trump’s lies, of course, have been thoroughly covered territory throughout his Presidency, especially because so many of them occur in public. Amazingly, it is no longer big news when the occupant of the Oval Office is shown to be callous, ignorant, nasty, and untruthful.

Reading through a copy of the book obtained by The New Yorker, however, I was struck by a different theme: what Woodward has written is not just the story of a deeply flawed President but also, finally, an account of what those surrounding him have chosen to do about it. Throughout much of Trump’s first year in office, the shorthand had it that, while Trump was an inexperienced, and possibly even dangerous, newcomer to politics, he could be managed by the grownups he had invited into his government. Many of those grownups are now gone, fired by Trump or pushed out by scandal, and for months they have been telling people how bad it was, or how much they did to stop the President, or how much worse it could have been. Here, then, are some of the details of what they claim to have done to control Trump: Gary Cohn, who was the economic adviser until he resigned, early this year, swiped that order to withdraw from a free-trade agreement with South Korea, and another one to unilaterally withdraw from naftaH. R. McMaster, the soon-to-be-fired national-security adviser, pondered quitting after the President ranted against U.S. allies and threatened to pull troops out of Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere, but he remained in the job and convinced Trump, at least temporarily, not to go through with it. James Mattis, the generally unflappable Defense Secretary, told the President, “We’re doing this in order to prevent World War III here,” during a contentious meeting that exasperated him so much, according to Woodward, that he later complained Trump behaved like a “fifth- or sixth-grader.” Another session in the Pentagon with the national-security team and Trump went so famously badly that, afterward, the Secretary of State at the time, Rex Tillerson, called Trump a “fucking moron,” a detail that Woodward confirms here for posterity.

This is hardly a flattering picture of what the internal pushback to Trump looks like. Many of Woodward’s sources come across as caricatures of Washington power brokers, scheming against one another as they jockey for Trump’s favor, shamelessly flattering the President, fuming about insults and threatening to quit but never actually doing so. I was about halfway through the book on Wednesday afternoon when the news cycle interrupted my reading: an anonymous Op-Ed by a “senior official in the Trump administration” had just been published by the Times, praising the “unsung heroes” inside the White House who have secretly been members of the same clandestine “resistance” chronicled in the Woodward book. “It may be cold comfort in this chaotic era,” Anonymous wrote, “but Americans should know that there are adults in the room. We fully recognize what is happening. And we are trying to do what’s right even when Donald Trump won’t.”

It was as if one of Woodward’s sources had chosen to publish a real-time epilogue in the pages of the Times. Reading the Op-Ed, I immediately thought of an amazing passage in the book, which quoted a summary of a national-security meeting written by a White House official (and which never even made it into the news accounts about the book). It said, “The president proceeded to lecture and insult the entire group about how they didn’t know anything when it came to defense or national security. It seems clear that many of the president’s senior advisers, especially those in the national security realm, are extremely concerned with his erratic nature, his relative ignorance, his inability to learn, as well as what they consider his dangerous views.”

Both the Op-Ed and the book convey the laments of conservatives who, in many respects, are fine with the Trump agenda but not with the man. That is, for now, what passes for the Republican wing of the resistance. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

7 September 2018 at 2:31 pm

How Fascism Works – extract

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Jason Stanley has written a book, How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them, that is, unfortunately, highly relevant to the US today. Here are a couple of extracts:

First, from the Introduction, page xi | Location 48-89

Growing up with parents who’d fled Europe as refugees, I was raised with stories of the heroic nation that helped defeat Hitler’s armies and usher in an unprecedented era of liberal democracy in the West. Near the end of his life, gravely ill with Parkinson’s disease, my father insisted on visiting the beaches of Normandy. Leaning on the shoulder of his wife, my stepmother, he fulfilled a lifelong dream, walking where so many brave American youth lost their lives in the battle against fascism. But even as my family celebrated and honored this American legacy, my parents also knew that American heroism and American ideas of freedom have never been just one thing.

Before World War II, Charles Lindbergh typified American heroism with his daring flights, including the first solo transatlantic flight, and his celebration of new technology. He parlayed his fame and heroic stature into a leading role in the America First movement, which opposed America’s entrance into the war against Nazi Germany. In 1939, in an essay entitled “Aviation, Geography, and Race,” published in that most American of journals, Reader’s Digest, Lindbergh embraced something close to Nazism for America:

It is time to turn from our quarrels and to build our White ramparts again. This alliance with foreign races means nothing but death to us. It is our turn to guard our heritage from Mongol and Persian and Moor, before we become engulfed in a limitless foreign sea.

The year 1939 was also when my father, Manfred, then six years old, escaped Nazi Germany, leaving Tempelhof Airport in Berlin in July with his mother, Ilse, after spending months in hiding. He arrived in New York City on August 3, 1939, his ship sailing past the Statue of Liberty on its way to dock. We have a family album from the 1920s and ’30s. The last page has six different pictures of the Statue of Liberty gradually coming into view.

The America First movement was the public face of pro-fascist sentiment in the United States at that time. In the twenties and thirties, many Americans shared Lindbergh’s views against immigration, especially by non-Europeans. The Immigration Act of 1924 strictly limited immigration into the country, and it was specifically intended to restrict the immigration of both nonwhites and Jews. In 1939, the United States allowed so few refugees through its borders that it is a miracle that my father happened to be among them.

In 2016, Donald Trump revived “America First” as one of his slogans, and from his first week in office, his administration has ceaselessly pursued travel bans on immigration, including refugees, specifically singling out Arab countries. Trump also promised to deport the millions of nonwhite Central and South American undocumented workers in the United States and to end legislation protecting the children they brought with them from deportation. In September 2017, the Trump administration set a cap of forty-five thousand on the number of refugees that will be allowed into the United States in 2018, the lowest number since presidents began placing such limits.

If Trump recalled Lindbergh specifically with “America First,” the rest of his campaign also longed for some vague point in history—to “Make America Great Again.” But when, exactly, was America great, in the eyes of the Trump campaign? During the nineteenth century, when the United States enslaved its black population? During Jim Crow, when black Americans in the South were prevented from voting? A hint about the decade that was most salient to the Trump campaign emerges from a November 18, 2016, Hollywood Reporter interview with Steve Bannon, the then president-elect’s chief strategist, in which he remarks about the era to come that “it will be as exciting as the 1930s.” In short, the era when the United States had its most sympathy for fascism

* * *

In recent years, multiple countries across the world have been overtaken by a certain kind of far-right nationalism; the list includes Russia, Hungary, Poland, India, Turkey, and the United States. The task of generalizing about such phenomena is always vexing, as the context of each country is always unique. But such generalization is necessary in the current moment. I have chosen the label “fascism” for ultranationalism of some variety (ethnic, religious, cultural), with the nation represented in the person of an authoritarian leader who speaks on its behalf. As Donald Trump declared in his Republican National Convention speech in July 2016, “I am your voice.”

My interest in this book is in fascist politics. Specifically, my interest is in fascist tactics as a mechanism to achieve power. Once those who employ such tactics come to power, the regimes they enact are in large part determined by particular historical conditions. What occurred in Germany was different from what occurred in Italy. Fascist politics does not necessarily lead to an explicitly fascist state, but it is dangerous nonetheless.

Fascist politics includes many distinct strategies: the mythic past, propaganda, anti-intellectualism, unreality, hierarchy, victimhood, law and order, sexual anxiety, appeal to the heartland, and a dismantling of public welfare and unity. . .

And from page xvi | Location 104-128

The most telling symptom of fascist politics is division. It aims to separate a population into an “us” and a “them.” Many kinds of political movements involve such a division; for example, Communist politics weaponizes class divisions. Giving a description of fascist politics involves describing the very specific way that fascist politics distinguishes “us” from “them,” appealing to ethnic, religious, or racial distinctions, and using this division to shape ideology and, ultimately, policy. Every mechanism of fascist politics works to create or solidify this distinction.

Fascist politicians justify their ideas by breaking down a common sense of history in creating a mythic past to support their vision for the present. They rewrite the population’s shared understanding of reality by twisting the language of ideals through propaganda and promoting anti-intellectualism, attacking universities and educational systems that might challenge their ideas. Eventually, with these techniques, fascist politics creates a state of unreality, in which conspiracy theories and fake news replace reasoned debate.

As the common understanding of reality crumbles, fascist politics makes room for dangerous and false beliefs to take root. First, fascist ideology seeks to naturalize group difference, thereby giving the appearance of natural, scientific support for a hierarchy of human worth. When social rankings and divisions solidify, fear fills in for understanding between groups. Any progress for a minority group stokes feelings of victimhood among the dominant population. Law and order politics has mass appeal, casting “us” as lawful citizens and “them,” by contrast, as lawless criminals whose behavior poses an existential threat to the manhood of the nation. Sexual anxiety is also typical of fascist politics as the patriarchal hierarchy is threatened by growing gender equity.

As the fear of “them” grows, “we” come to represent everything virtuous. “We” live in the rural heartland, where the pure values and traditions of the nation still miraculously exist despite the threat of cosmopolitanism from the nation’s cities, alongside the hordes of minorities who live there, emboldened by liberal tolerance. “We” are hardworking, and have earned our pride of place by struggle and merit. “They” are lazy, surviving off the goods we produce by exploiting the generosity of our welfare systems, or employing corrupt institutions, such as labor unions, meant to separate honest, hardworking citizens from their pay. “We” are makers; “they” are takers.

Many people are not familiar with the ideological structure of fascism, that each mechanism of fascist politics tends to build on others. They do not recognize the interconnectedness of the political slogans they are asked to repeat. I have written this book in the hope of providing citizens with the critical tools to recognize the difference between legitimate tactics in liberal democratic politics on the one hand, and invidious tactics in fascist politics on the other. . .

It’s a timely book, particularly since you can actually see the process he describes in operation.

Written by LeisureGuy

7 September 2018 at 8:55 am

Why Read the Classics?

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Italo Calvino explained in the NY Review of Books 32 years ago:

Let us begin with a few suggested definitions.

1) The classics are the books of which we usually hear people say: “I am rereading…” and never “I am reading….”

This at least happens among those who consider themselves “very well read.” It does not hold good for young people at the age when they first encounter the world, and the classics as a part of that world.

The reiterative prefix before the verb “read” may be a small hypocrisy on the part of people ashamed to admit they have not read a famous book. To reassure them, we need only observe that, however vast any person’s basic reading may be, there still remain an enormous number of fundamental works that he has not read.

Hands up, anyone who has read the whole of Herodotus and the whole of Thucydides! And Saint-Simon? And Cardinal de Retz? But even the great nineteenth-century cycles of novels are more often talked about than read. In France they begin to read Balzac in school, and judging by the number of copies in circulation, one may suppose that they go on reading him even after that, but if a Gallup poll were taken in Italy, I’m afraid that Balzac would come in practically last. Dickens fans in Italy form a tiny elite; as soon as its members meet, they begin to chatter about characters and episodes as if they were discussing people and things of their own acquaintance. Years ago, while teaching in America, Michel Butor got fed up with being asked about Emile Zola, whom he had never read, so he made up his mind to read the entire Rougon-Macquart cycle. He found it was completely different from what he had thought: a fabulous mythological and cosmogonical family tree, which he went on to describe in a wonderful essay.

In other words, to read a great book for the first time in one’s maturity is an extraordinary pleasure, different from (though one cannot say greater or lesser than) the pleasure of having read it in one’s youth. Youth brings to reading, as to any other experience, a particular flavor and a particular sense of importance, whereas in maturity one appreciates (or ought to appreciate) many more details and levels and meanings. We may therefore attempt the next definition:

2) We use the word “classics” for those books that are treasured by those who have read and loved them; but they are treasured no less by those who have the luck to read them for the first time in the best conditions to enjoy them.

In fact, reading in youth can be rather unfruitful, owing to impatience, distraction, inexperience with the product’s “instructions for use,” and inexperience in life itself. Books read then can be (possibly at one and the same time) formative, in the sense that they give a form to future experiences, providing models, terms of comparison, schemes for classification, scales of value, exemplars of beauty—all things that continue to operate even if the book read in one’s youth is almost or totally forgotten. If we reread the book at a mature age we are likely to rediscover these constants, which by this time are part of our inner mechanisms, but whose origins we have long forgotten. A literary work can succeed in making us forget it as such, but it leaves its seed in us. The definition we can give is therefore this:

3) The classics are books that exert a peculiar influence, both when they refuse to be eradicated from the mind and when they conceal themselves in the folds of memory, camouflaging themselves as the collective or individual unconscious.

There should therefore be a time in adult life devoted to revisiting the most important books of our youth. Even if the books have remained the same (though they do change, in the light of an altered historical perspective), we have most certainly changed, and our encounter will be an entirely new thing.

Hence, whether we use the verb “read” or the verb “reread” is of little importance. Indeed, we may say:

4) Every rereading of a classic is as much a voyage of discovery as the first reading.

5) Every reading of a classic is in fact a rereading.

Definition 4 may be considered a corollary of this next one:

6) A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.

Whereas definition 5 depends on a more specific formula, such as this:

7) The classics are the books that come down to us bearing upon them the traces of readings previous to ours, and bringing in their wake the traces they themselves have left on the culture or cultures they have passed through (or, more simply, on language and customs).

All this is true both of the ancient and of the modern classics. If I read the Odyssey I read Homer’s text, but I cannot forget all that the adventures of Ulysses have come to mean in the course of the centuries, and I cannot help wondering if these meanings were implicit in the text, or whether they are incrustations or distortions or expansions. When reading Kafka, I cannot avoid approving or rejecting the legitimacy of the adjective “Kafkaesque,” which one is likely to hear every quarter of an hour, applied indiscriminately. If I read Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons or Dostoevsky’s The Possessed, I cannot help thinking how these characters have continued to be reincarnated right down to our own day.

The reading of a classic ought to give us a surprise or two vis-à-vis the notion that we had of it. For this reason I can never sufficiently highly recommend the direct reading of the text itself, leaving aside the critical biography, commentaries, and interpretations as much as possible. Schools and universities ought to help us to understand that no book that talks about a book says more than the book in question, but instead they do their level best to make us think the opposite. There is a very widespread topsyturviness of values whereby the introduction, critical apparatus, and bibliography are used as a smoke screen to hide what the text has to say, and, indeed, can say only if left to speak for itself without intermediaries who claim to know more than the text does. We may conclude that:

8) A classic does not necessarily teach us anything we did not know before. In a classic we sometimes discover something we have always known (or thought we knew), but without knowing that this author said it first, or at least is associated with it in a special way. And this, too, is a surprise that gives a lot of pleasure, such as we always gain from the discovery of an origin, a relationship, an affinity. From all this we may derive a definition of this type:

9) The classics are books that we find all the more new, fresh, and unexpected upon reading, the more we thought we knew them from hearing them talked about.

Naturally, this only happens when a classic really works as such—that is, when it establishes a personal rapport with the reader. If the spark doesn’t come, that’s a pity; but we do not read the classics out of duty or respect, but only out of love. Except at school. And school should enable you to know, either well or badly, a certain number of classics among which—or in reference to which—you can then choose your classics. School is obliged to give you the instruments needed to make a choice, but the choices that count are those that occur outside and after school.

It is only by reading without bias that you might possibly come across the book that becomes your book. I know an excellent art historian, an extraordinarily well-read man, who out of all the books there are has focused his special love on the Pickwick Papers; at every opportunity he comes up with some quip from Dickens’s book, and connects each and every event in life with some Pickwickian episode. Little by little he himself, and true philosophy, and the universe, have taken on the shape and form of the Pickwick Papers by a process of complete identification. In this way we arrive at a very lofty and demanding notion of what a classic is:

10) We use the word “classic” of a book that takes the form of an equivalent to the universe, on a level with the ancient talismans. With this definition we are approaching the idea of the “total book,” as Mallarmé conceived of it.

But a classic can establish an equally strong rapport in terms of opposition and antithesis. Everything that Jean-Jacques Rousseau thinks and does is very dear to my heart, yet everything fills me with an irrepressible desire to contradict him, to criticize him, to quarrel with him. It is a question of personal antipathy on a temperamental level, on account of which I ought to have no choice but not to read him; and yet I cannot help numbering him among my authors. I will therefore say:

11) Your classic author is the one you cannot feel indifferent to, who helps you to define yourself in relation to him, even in dispute with him. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

7 September 2018 at 8:24 am

Posted in Books, Daily life, Education

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