Reading is fundamental. Those of us who grew up hearing that slogan have never forgotten it. The part that I wish had stuck better is just a touch shorter: reading is fun. Or it can be. Should be. Alan Jacobs’ little book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction is like an extended essay on the subject. As a professor of literature, Jacobs has considerable experience encouraging people to read, and in his book he makes a case for reading what you want to read (reading on a Whim, he calls it). Wisely he recognizes that many would-be readers are discouraged by being instructed to read that which they don’t find appealing. I learned quite a lot from the suggestions contained herein, and I’ve been reading so long that I thought I knew pretty much what I needed to know about it. Perhaps the most fundamental issue (apart from reading itself) is that many of us expect to be told what to read. We second-guess our own judgment, feeling we need an expert to tell us how to do it. Like singing in public, it’s intimidating to come across someone better read than oneself. Jacobs advocates reading what gives you pleasure and not worrying about what others think.
Recognizing that readers are spoiled for choice, Jacobs addresses, among other topics, rereading. And taking notes. And reading slowly. I recall speed-reading courses advertised, ironically, on television. At college you could take courses in improving your quota of pages turned. There is a specific kind of reading, as Jacobs notes—reading for information—where this may be helpful. This is different than reading for pleasure, or even reading for understanding. In the case of the Bible (Jacobs taught at Wheaton before moving on to Baylor) many people, he suggests, read for information rather than for understanding. When reading for pleasure taking your time is a virtue. Getting to know a book requires rereading. We need to make time for what is important.
Jacobs makes the point that readers are a minority sect. There have always been fewer of us than there have been of those who don’t read. We are, in his words, a tribe. We can generally spot one another. Those of us who can’t walk past a bookstore will recognize ourselves in the pages of this meditation. Those who spend long hours with books become like them, in some respects. Familiar, layered, and requiring more and more attention. Like the reading that it advocates, this book itself is a delight to read. There is so much in this brief volume that it’s difficult to summarize in the short-form writing that I use on this blog. I found myself wishing for an index so that I might find my favorite passages again. Then I realized that perhaps this absence was intentional. Maybe I’ll have to reread it, taking notes as I go. What a wonderful thought.
Maybe you’ve seen it too. Corporate-style psychobabble. Memos land on your desk, whether real or virtual, jostling with neologisms, indicating the trendy new directions the business is going. Apparently a legal requirement is that old vocabulary is vorboten in such information-bytes. You can’t call a spade a spade—it might confuse somebody. Do you mean a playing card spade, or something to dig with? And do people even use spades anymore? Why not call them loam-moving facilitators? Isn’t that really what they are? If you can get through a memorandum without a dictionary (slang or otherwise) you’re much more fluent in my native language than me. Or I. I often wonder how much this has to do with an inherent inferiority complex. A cog in this corporate machine has to prove it’s usefulness. If nobody can understand what you’re doing, it seems, your job is secure. I imagine think tanks as being like big aquaria, but with fewer viable ideas than captive fish. I once read a memo that had to give each and every stage of a process a chic new name. I felt like I needed to update my wardrobe and get a fashionable haircut just to read the thing.
Perhaps it’s just that a simply guy like yours truly prefers things explained clearly. I can imagine a meeting taking place where nobody really understands what’s going on but they all have to nod their heads in approval for fear of feeling stupid. New phrases, of course, have their place. We needed a portmanteau for “telephone” back in the day, since there had been nothing like it before. Most of my memos, by contrast, have been about plain old things that have been around for centuries. Or millennia. And if an old word is used, such as “idea,” it has to be in quotes. Business must find a way of ensuring stakeholders that it’s on top of the latest developments. Who uses a fax any more? Most people consider email outmoded. The period itself, I’ve read, is about to go extinct. Still we have time to make up corporate-speak.
I work in the publishing industry, which is notoriously slow. Unhurried attention to detail is a sign of quality. If you want a book to be good, you need to take your time at every stage of the process. Sure, a book can be churned out mere days after an important event, but if you read it you’ll see the corners that have been cut. We even received an issue of Time once that had the “e” accidentally chopped off by a hasty cutting machine. You want quality, you need to take your tim. Adopting the newest coinage in the busyness business hardly seems a way for minting success. Utilizing quality ideas isn’t the same as the fabrication of nonce words. Of course, attention to detail takes away from time that could be spent making more money. Churning out new verbiage creates the illusion of being ahead of the game. If you need a dictionary to understand what your company is doing, perhaps it’s a good thing to work in publishing, even if you have to look words up online.
Nothing used to make you feel smarter than being in a British bookstore. With that curious blend of proper, insane, and bawdy, books are displayed that you might find surprising. Alarming, even. Last year as I strolled around Blackwells in Oxford, I spied Why is Sex Fun?, by Jared Diamond. I mean, it was sitting right there, face-up, on a table with perfectly respectable, straight-laced books. Curious, but not curious enough to pick it up in a public place, I remembered the title so that I might find it on Amazon, where it could arrive in a nice, safe, opaque box. I finally stored up enough points on Amazon to get it, but then the problem was how to read it. I do a great deal of my reading on public transit—a place where you inordinately care what others might think of you. Finally, planning a seating strategy that would hide the cover by sitting on the left-hand side, next to the window, I took the book along, hoping it would keep me interested to and from work.
Subtitled The Evolution of Human Sexuality, the book isn’t salacious at all. It is scientific, but not clinical. I’ve mentioned before that all religions have something—quite a lot, usually—to say about sex. While religion doesn’t play into Diamond’s book, morality does. What I found interesting is his use of the phrase “God or Darwin,” which comes up a few places in the book. Diamond is a witty writer, and he explains that not all his phraseology is to be taken literally, but I appreciated his hedging his bets, nevertheless.
This book isn’t really titillating. In fact, it’s somewhat depressing. Perhaps it’s just phrasing again, but the production of offspring is described in economic terms. Resources, investment, efficiency, and the like. I think back to being a child. My family life wasn’t ideal, but I never thought of myself as anyone’s resource or investment. I was just me. That delusion stayed with me until I started working in the corporate world. I quickly discovered that others considered me a resource. “Human resources,” we call it. An investment. My efficiency was valued. Was it God or was it Darwin? Although I learned a lot from this little book, I wonder if it was worth the effort of having to hide the cover on the commute. After all, we’re all stuck together on this bus, units of investment, born to yield a profit. Why not have a little fun on the way?
Posted in Books, Britannia, Evolution, Just for Fun, Posts, Science
Tagged Amazon, Blackwells, Jared Diamond, morality, Oxford, The Evolution of Human Sexuality, Why is Sex Fun?
I suspect, like most people, I missed quite a few classics in school. This was the ’70’s when new and experimental were still the rage. One of the must-reads I missed was Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. As usual when approaching books like this, I’m delighted at the sheer number of famous lines I’ve repeatedly heard, whispering to myself, “So that’s where that comes from!” as I go. Since I expect you, my cultured reader, have walked on the Wilde side, I need not provide any of these lines here. I won’t even have to go over the plot. The edition I read, however, contained lines and scenes that did not make it into the canonical version. As an erstwhile writer, I know that final versions seldom resemble those that felt so magical at their penning. Cuts must be made. Editors must be satisfied. And so goes the life of the writer.
It was one of these cut lines that caught my eye. With Wilde’s keen wit, the clergy, represented by Dr. Chasuble. (For those liturgically challenged readers, a chasuble is a priestly vestment in the Roman and Anglican traditions.) In an unfortunately stricken scene the minister says, “I am compelled, like most of my brother clergy, to treat scientific subjects from the point of view of sentiment. But that is more impressive I think. Accurate knowledge is out of place in a pulpit. It is secular.” Accurate knowledge is secular. That thought stayed with me long after reading the out-takes and deleted scenes of the play. Those that remain contain priceless comments about the church and the dangers of christenings. This particular gem, from the cutting room floor, would be hilarious were it not so often true. It explains, for example, creationism.
It’s a fair wager that science remains, even today, a subject that flummoxes clergy and laity alike. It is the new revelation, after all. No truth cannot be reduced to numbers. Even my scribbling this post is mere electro-chemical signals jumping synapses like electro-chemical salmon dying to spawn. We’ve simply substituted one clergy for another. When’s the last time a preacher has been cited as an authority on anything? What with televangelists setting the bar (for anything we see on the media is necessarily representative), it stands to reason that no real intelligence lies here. By default we nod toward those who hold the paten and chalice of empirical evidence. As it is now, but never was, and shall be forever, amen. Who’s being earnest now?