Too Big to Know by David Weinberger. Life has always been too big to know.

Too Big to KnowMy mother grew up in a little village in Friesland, a northern province of the Netherlands. Her family farm was near a canal where she skated with her friends. Today it is rare to have the freezing temperatures for hard ice. My mother says life was simpler in the past. I asked, did it feel that way at the time? She looked at me sharp in the eye. No, no it didn’t. She lived through the depression and Nazi occupation in World War II. It is an illusion that life is more complex today than in the past.

In Too Big to Know, David Weinberger explains how the shape of knowledge has changed. In the past we had traditional knowledge and it was associated with print. Academics would follow a disciplined scholarly process of researching and writing papers and books, the source of classic facts. It seems a nice orderly process, but Weinberger knows this picture oversimplifies things. He attributes the oversimplification to print: “The limitations of paper made facts look far more manageable than they seem now that we see them linked into our unlimited network” (40). Today knowledge is not book-shaped but network-shaped like the web. No longer written by a single expert on one particular subject toward a fixed conclusion, knowledge is more an interactive dialogue of people weaving different subjects together with changeable outcomes.

It is a good thing that our information technology has adapted to better handle the messiness of thought. “To think that knowledge itself is shaped like books is to marvel that a rock fits so well in its hole in the ground” (100). Still, messiness is not itself a virtue. If print makes knowledge seem too tidy, that is also its strength. Chaos is tamed by filtering out distractions and crackpots, fixing reference points to allow for evaluation, distilling knowledge from data, allowing for a period of consensus and informed actions.

Life has always been too big to know. I have written elsewhere how the Dutch immigration shaped a people of the book. Reading the bible provided a focus and refuge amidst the uncertainty and hardships of starting a new life in a strange land. Digital information technologies extend our abilities with the true messiness of life, but networks are still leaky buckets. The fixity of print remains the gold standard for knowledge.

The Art of Slow Reading by Thomas Newkirk. Provides what many readers seek — a set of practical techniques.

The art of slow readingPut the modifier “slow” in front of anything and people call it a movement. Slow food, slow cities, slow sex, you name it. I was not the first writer to use the expression, slow reading. In his 1887 preface to Daybreak, Nietzsche defined his task as a philologist to be a teacher of slow reading. In 1978, James Sire published his book, How to Read Slowly. In 2009, when I published my little book of research, Slow Reading, I attributed the unexpected attention it received as a reaction to the rise of e-books. There has been no abatement in interest in slow reading. The web dialogue on the subject is lively. This year, Thomas Newkirk published a new book, The Art of Slow Reading, a worthy addition to what seems to be a real movement.

The Art of Slow Reading provides what many readers seek — a set of practical techniques. Sire’s book also provided practical techniques but framed them in a Christian context. Slow reading continues to be of interest to religious readers but it is also useful to everyone, theist or not. My own book gave a few practical suggestions in the last chapter, but Newkirk fills a gap by making it his central subject. He shows how these techniques can be used with students to improve their reading skills and enjoyment.

Six “time-honoured practices for engagement” are described.

  1. Performance reading is a favourite of mine. While speed-readers are taught to eliminate sub-vocalization, slow readers are encouraged to read aloud, dramatizing a reading with actions. This practice can be quite enjoyable in a classroom.
  2. Good old-fashioned memorization is another technique. I recall as a youth being compelled to repeat a poem ad nauseam in preparation for a recital. Those words were etched in my soul and I can recite them with pleasure to this day. “It is language retained, embodied, and used at a moment of ‘affliction.'”
  3. Forget using a highlighter, mark up your book with a pen, completing the work with your own thoughts. Newkirk advises on notation style and markup exercises.
  4. Many students find reading difficult. Newkirk suggests that a beginner reader is in a position to read creatively, turning reading difficulties into mysteries to be solved. It a good technique for developing critical thinking.
  5. Slow yourself down to the speed at which the text was written. Type out four pages of a favoured author’s writing. Ask questions about why the author did things in a particular way and write the answers.
  6. Newkirk’s sixth practice, “opening a text”, continues the theme of “reading like a writer”, an art previously described by Francine Prose in a book by that name. He ends with scriptural reading as another opening technique. (Perhaps slow reading is inevitably a spiritual exercise.)

As I read and enjoyed Newkirk’s book, I thought of other slow reading techniques that I use and should have included in my own work.

  • Is there a setting that fits with the content of your book? Go there for the reading. On a day off, take a book on a bike or canoe trip. Bring a lunch. Find a quiet place in a park or museum. Spend a morning just reading in that proper setting.
  • Stop buying new books. Go to your bookshelf. Read the ones still uncracked. Understand why you have been avoiding them. Maybe you just need the right setting.
  • Read just a few paragraphs or pages, then put the book down. Sleep on it. Unleash your unconscious on the text.
  • Blog book reviews! I write “reader responses”, personal reactions that I noted as I was reading.

One last observation. Newkirk made no mention of e-books. Maybe he doesn’t read them, or maybe he thinks it makes no difference. It is a curious but minor omission given the rapid reading style associated with digital text. In any case, if you are interested in learning the techniques of slow reading for yourself, or for instructional purposes in the classroom, I highly recommend The Art of Slow Reading.

Orality and Literacy by Walter J. Ong. Literacy is not the last word.

Orality and Literacy (New Accents)We take it for granted but literacy changed everything. We could remember things precisely. Literacy allowed extension of thought into complex design. It is essential to philosophy, literature, science, engineering, and technology. Literacy is the platform of modern civilization, including the internet. We forget what it was like before literacy, when oral communication was the dominant mode of communication. Walter J. Ong’s Orality and Literacy is the second most illuminating book I have read about human consciousness.

How to achieve complex design without literacy

Accurate memory seems essential for complex design. One might think that oral culture could not engineer complex works, yet the Iliad and the Odyssey were oral creations. Ong explains the properties of orality that make this possible. Oral memory is achieved through repetition and cliche, for example. Also, phrasing is aggregative, e.g, “brave solider” rather than analytic, e.g., “soldier’. In modern database parlance, words are normalized rather than denormalized, a technique still employed for efficient processing. Ong contrasts many more properties of oral memory. They define the lifeworld of thought prior to structuring through literacy. It is an architecture of implicit thought, of domain knowledge. It blows my information technology mind to think how these properties might be applied to the task of structuring data in unstructured environments, e.g., crawling the open web. I have not stopped thinking about it. It may take years to unpack.

Writing restructures consciousness

We can hear dead people speak. For the writer, the reader is a hypothetical other, a fiction. Literacy invented one-sided discourse. It abstracts communication and removes us from the lifeworld.  It increases inner dialogue and narrative, as witnessed in the rise of novels in the 1800s.

The very reflectiveness of writing — enforced by the slowness of the writing process as compared to oral delivery as well as by the isolation of the writer as compared to the oral performer — encourages growth of consciousness out of the unconscious. (147)

Ong says that even a little literacy restructures consciousness. Writing can be credited or blamed for a rise (the rise?) in self-awareness. It is interesting to note that the web is recreating the interactivity of readers and writers, while preserving the advantages of written memory. It is unclear how this change will again restructure consciousness.

Literacy is not the last word

Orality is not “pre-literate.” Orality is a domain of knowing unto itself, capable of achieving complex design. All reading and writing is transformed in the brain back to the original speech utterances. Literacy is founded on orality.

Ong calls orality “natural” and writing “technological”. This distinction is the only point on which I disagree with him. Speech without writing is technological in a Heideggerean sense, tool-like. Speech is the processing of symbols, embodied in sounds. We are learning much about the way thought extends beyond our brains into the environment or lifeworld. Heidegger understood the lifeworld, the implicit domain of thought. He called it Dasein. We are technological to the core, and by that I do not necessarily mean digital technology, but tool-makers, and speech falls into that category. For this reason, I consider Orality and Literacy to be the second most illuminating book I have read about human consciousness. Being and Time probes a level deeper.

Literacy is not the last word. Orality is not pre-literate and whatever comes next is not “post-literate.” Literacy is built on orality, and post-literacy will likely be built on literacy. No doubt post-literacy will further abstract communication. Programming code is a likely candidate, a powerful new form of symbolic processing, gleaned of the inefficiencies of written speech. As programmers say, code is poetry. Now consider that literacy is a hard-won skill that fades with disuse. Literacy will not vanish, but it will recede into the background of human communication. Like orality, post-literacy is in a different frame of reference than literacy.

Double Fold by Nicholson Baker. A new technology should be better than the old one.

Double foldRemember the microfiche machines in libraries during the 80’s? As high school students, we were told to use them as part of research assignments. The machines were futuristic … in a 60’s way. A mammoth black box, with a lamp projecting black and white text and images from plastic cards onto a screen. A fan blew off the considerable heat it generated. Maybe you can still find one of these behemoths tucked away in the corner of your library. I don’t use them. I still use books.

Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper was published by Nicholson Baker in 2001. He reported his indepth research into librarians’ mass destruction of books and newspapers scanned to microfiche. If microfiche is antiquated now, Baker’s observations are still valuable lessons for our our present day e-book revolution.

A crisis will be invented to fund technological change

There are always those who resist change. Baker was not among them. He endorsed scanning to microfiche if the original print materials were not destroyed. There’s the rub. It takes money to buy and use the new technology, and money is always tight in libraries. The budget of the old technology, print, is a tempting target. A switch in budget requires justification, a problem with the old technology to be solved by the new.

A 1987 film, “Slow Fires”, by Terry Sanders, was used as evidence of the acid decay that was causing print books and newspapers to become brittle. A “double fold” test was performed by machine, working a strip of paper back and forth by 90 degrees, subjecting it to the force of one kilogram. The test was used to classify the durability of books and make predictions about their life expectancy. Baker’s research found little science in this method. Carefully preserved, many such works last much longer. Furthermore, microfiche also degrades with sunlight or improper care. The double fold test was pseudo-science, invented to legitimize the conversion from print to microfiche.

In the present day we hear many dubious claims about e-books. One popular claim is that e-books are greener than print books. In fact, e-books exist only on the backs of the environmentally costly externalities of digital technology: power generation, product manufacturing, and toxic waste in landfills. It is another spurious claim, a marketing strategy used to drive technological change.

Readability is the typical victim of changes in reading technology

My memory of microfiche is grainy black and white text and images, difficult to read and view. The scanning process took hand-drawn images and illustrations, colored photos, and textured documents and reduced them to degraded black and white film. It seems too obvious to say, books exist for reading. Did the scanners eat their own dog food? As absurd as it sounds, readability is the typical victim of changes in reading technology. Today’s e-books enhance readability in some ways, e.g., changeable font-size, while remaining limited in other ways. E-ink still only presents text and images in black and white, though apparently coloured e-ink is on the way. Tablet devices have monitors with colour but are backlit, causing eye strain. Ad placement in e-readers is making rapid ground, intended for no other purpose than to distract potential buyers from reading.

Print books are by no means a perfect technology. They take up a lot of space, are often heavy to transport, slow to search, and hard to remix. Digital technology can help with these things. Any conversion entails loss. The important question is whether the overall gains outweigh the losses. Weirdly, we often jump to the new technology if it is merely close in quality to the old. I will restate the question as an axiom: a new technology should be better than the old one. If the technologies serve different needs better, then like Baker I have no objection to the new technology if it does not entail destruction of the old. Ask yourself, given the accelerating demand for e-books in libraries, how long will librarians keeping purchasing both formats? On a broader scale, given current market trends, how long do you think both print and e-books will be continue to be published?

Reading in the Brain by Dehaene. Still waiting for the digital codex.

Reading in the BrainEarly into Reading in the Brain I knew I had found a very good book, packed with research and informed insight. As I began to read it, however, I noticed something odd. I was struggling with the Kindle edition I had purchased. I found myself wanting to physically grapple with the device more than the buttons would allow. The book contains diagrams that are useful to consult when reading the text but I could not easily cross-reference them. The book is lengthy and I found it difficult to track progress without the thickness of a print book. I had already enjoyed a few novels on my Kindle without this problem. This material was more challenging. I have read many similar scientific books before but always in print. For analytical reading the absence of tangible pages felt like a phantom pain. What was happening? Dahane’s book was compelling enough, and the digital challenge troublesome enough, to merit a second purchase of the more expensive print edition. The completed reading answered my question.

The reading paradox

Dahaene begins with the reading paradox. Our brains evolved over millions of years without writing. How is it that we can read? The hardware of our brains has not evolved in the mere 5000 year history of writing. New studies repeatedly show that the brain is more plastic that we thought but no so plastic as to invent new structures for reading. Dahaene explains that reading became possible for humans because we had the good fortune to inherit cortical areas that could link visual elements to speech sounds and meanings. Our limited plasticity allowed us to recycle existing brain circuitry.

Learning to read still takes years of training. It starts with visual recognition of shapes, e.g., “T” and “L”. The brain learns to detect subtle differences in words, e.g., “eight” vs “sight” while ignoring big ones, e.g., “eight” vs “EIGHT”. We do not scan words letter by letter from left to right like a computer program, but instead encode units of meaning for easy look-up, e.g, the morpheme “button” in “un-button-ing”.  The brain uses two pathways in parallel, sound and meaning, to reconstruct the pronunciation of the word. With sufficient training and practice reading seems virtually effortless.

We are not born to read. The only evolution that occurred was cultural — we optimized reading over the centuries to suit the brain. One more thing is needed. Why are cultural phenomena like reading so uniquely developed in humans? Dahaene attributes it the evolution of our prefrontal cortex. “My proposal is that this evolution results in a large-scale ‘neuronal workspace’ whose main function is to assemble, confront, recombine, and synthesize knowledge.” The workspace allowed us to exploit the cognitive niche made possible by neuronal recycling.

My brain needs re-training for reflective reading of e-books

I was struck by the tight coupling of brain structures with their physical counterparts in the world. Learning to read, the brain becomes encoded with the specific shapes and sounds of words. The aim of reading is still to reconstruct the original physical speech utterances. The skills required for processing text should be mostly transferable from print to digital books. After all, the text is still there. Indeed I find the reading of light or familiar material to be nearly equivalent on an e-reader.

When words are less familiar some slowness is to be expected. As Dehaene explains, we perform extra processing to decipher letters for rare or novel words before attempting to access their meaning. When words, sentences and paragraphs combine to express complex ideas much more processing is required. Reduced reading speed can be expected for reading abstract and challenging material regardless of the medium. To be sure, I wrestle with print books, snapping pages when I am unconvinced, wearing the binding from too much turning, attacking the text with a pen. I experienced this with the print edition of Reading in the Brain. I experienced a greater challenge when using the e-reader. How come?

I speculate a connection between reading technology and access to the neuronal workspace. Dahaene argues that literacy changed to suit the structures of the brain. The print book, the codex, is two thousand years old, a design that surpassed the scroll. It is an evolution of technology, finely tuned to our neurons to optimize reading. I can compel its knowledge. We assume the e-reader represents an advance on print because it embodies digital technology. Integrated with the web, it is easier to discover, purchase, search and link to other material. The text is readily ported to an e-reader and I can adjust its font-size for readability or play it aloud for listening. Still, the pages are continuous like the older scroll format. More important, I think, the global analysis functions are inferior to that of a print book: the single stream of focus, parallel access to pages, easy turning and cross-referencing across any two points. These are reflective reading functions that are used to “assemble, confront, recombine, and synthesize knowledge,” the functions served by the neuronal workspace. If you think I am cutting too fine a point, recall the tight coupling between brain structures and the world.

I am certain that my brain is already being reprogrammed to work more efficiently with e-books. It is happening to all readers. This phase of re-training  explains some of the fourty year delay in the popular adoption of e-books. If my speculation is correct, e-reader design must evolve again if it is to finally compete equally with the print book. We have only seen the invention of a digital scroll but have yet to witness a truly digital codex. What would a digital codex look like? I offer a suggestion. The print codex introduced facing pages, a dual pane interface that has been mimicked by some e-reader designers. This effect could be amplified using multiple tabs like modern browsers, but within the e-reader. Better yet, I would like to be able to create any number of independent digital pages (or portions thereof) on a single digital desktop, all available at once in full-size for parallel processing. This is not the same as a browser with web content. It matters that the content is still unified within a dedicated reading device.

Reading is always at risk

E-books only make us stupid because we argue about them. While print is still the superior technology for reflective reading, if a truly digital codex was invented I would be the first in line to get one. Dehaene’s book focuses my attention on two more serious concerns. First, we are not born to read. The alphabet and literacy are cultural inventions finely tuned to our brains. Every generation must go through the hard work of learning to read. The internet does not offer a shortcut to knowledge. Second, the invention of reading re-purposed existing neural circuitry. Dahane suggests the mental “letterbox” we use for recognizing letters may have once been used for identifying animal tracks, a skill we have lost. Cortical reorganization is a competition, a zero sum game. As we re-train our brains for digital technology what skills will be lost? The capacity for long-form reflective reading, perhaps. Reading is always at risk.

The Key: How to Write Damn Good Fiction Using the Power of Myth, by James Frey.

The KeyThe universal elements of myth can be used to write good fiction. The same elements can be observed in the everyday stories of our lives too.

Myth-based fiction is patterned after what Joseph Campbell has called the monomyth … a reenactment of the same mythological hero’s journey; it is prevalent in all cultures, in every era … ‘a hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man (1).

Myths are core story telling patterns which writers can draw upon in the fashioning of their own stories. It is not the only type of story, but it a powerful one. If nothing more, myths are like old familiar songs that people love to hear, a trustworthy source of entertainment. More deeply, myths express fundamental patterns of human experience — archetypes in the collective unconscious. As such, myths tell the handful of stories repeated in the ordinary lives of humans of all ages, informing us how to be heroic when we need to act, gradually molding our culture. The telling of mythical fiction blurs the distinction between the personal and collective unconscious – between present and past, self and others – offering the reader a passage from the personal to the universal and perhaps the divine, a moment of transcendence.

The structures of the monomyth can be sorted into two types: traits and characters, and regions and motifs. Certainly never mistake the structures as requirements. Nearly all are optional and subject to wide variation, doubling up, or absence. The structures are merely story telling ingredients. Heroes and villains have some consistent traits. Both are capable and set apart by a special talent or some other condition. The hero tends to have noble qualities such as loyalty while the villain may be cruel.

Campbell identified three “regions” or phases of the monomyth: Separation, Initiation and Return. Each region has standard motifs. Each motif is associated with a change in the Hero. Separation motifs include

  • Hero exists in common, Ordinary World, dealing with ordinary scale conflicts.
  • The Herald delivers the Call to Adventure. If the hero resists the call, he is an anti-hero. He degenerates, turns into a victim, and faces increasing external pressure until he heeds the Call.
  • The Hero may be warned not to go by a Threshold Guardian.
  • He may seek advice from a Wise One.
  • He may seek weapons from an Armorer.
  • He may obtain magic from a Magic Helper.
  • He may have a tearful good-bye with a Loved One.
  • The Hero crosses the Threshold.

Initiation motifs:

  • Frey calls this region the “Mythological Woods”. It does not need to be fantastical, just different and strange for the Hero.
  • The Hero is in new territory, and must Learn New Rules. He will obey some of the rules he learns, and ignore others.
  • The Hero is Tested, often by the Evil One, and often fails some or many of these tests. The tests may take the form of physical challenges such a heights or a long journey, or inner struggles. The tests ready the hero for transformation.
  • Death and Re-Birth. The Transformation. The Hero becomes a new person. Affects self and external perception of Hero. Not always a change for the better – the Hero may become savage and destructive, perhaps experiencing a second re-birth later. The Re-Birth may be in spirit only.
  • Confrontation with the Evil One, usually in the lair of the Evil One. Hero may lose this confrontation, narrowly escaping, perhaps facing the Evil One again later.
  • May obtain a Prize of Value, if the Evil One has been defeated. The prize could be an item, e.g., grail, or knowledge.

Return motifs:

  • Two parts: Journey Home and Arrival.
  • Modern stories often shorten this phase, focusing instead on the individual achievement over the community. This is the fulfillment phase, and very poignant – use it!
  • On the Return Journey, the Evil One may try to reclaim the prize, causing another Confrontation, e.g., Saruman in the Shire. If the Hero was bested by the Evil One, he gets a second chance to defeat him.
  • Hero crosses the Threshold back into his community, the Ordinary world.
  • The Hero uses the prize to Bestow Boons on his Fellows.
  • Hero is hailed as a Hero.

The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr. Offloading our memory to the web only spares us the work of learning, preventing a growth of intelligence.

The ShallowsThe debate over technology and books has reached new heights this year. Amazon just announced that e-books have overtaken hardback sales. At the same time, there has been an intensification of debate about the effects of online reading on our brains. At the center of this debate is Nicholas Carr’s, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.

Do your kids still do memory work at school? Have you wondered if memorization matters much now that we can access information online anytime? Carr clearly shows that it does. When we read, information is placed in working memory and requires time before it consolidates in long term memory. The process requires the synthesis of new proteins for anatomical changes in the brain. Complex memories require concerted action across the brain. Any distraction can interrupt this process and the internet is a distraction machine. “When the load exceeds our mind’s ability to store and process the information — when the water overflows the thimble — we’re unable to retain or to draw connections with the information already stored in long-term memory” (125). Human memory is gradient, organic, alive. It gains in richness with each remembering. Only in our heads can we form the complex neural connections linking new information to our previous ones, giving them context and meaning. Biological memory is a completely different thing than computer memory. Offloading our memory to the web only spares us the work of learning, thus preventing a growth of intelligence.

That technology changes our brain is not a new idea. Everything changes our brain. The topic of brain plasticity is also popular this year, following research showing that our brains never stop learning. As Carr observes, it is good news for the brain injured in rehabilitation but it also means that our good mental habits cannot be taken for granted. Neglected pathways get pruned away. MRI studies demonstrate that online readers uses different mental pathways. While book readers are active in areas associated with language, memory and visual processing, online readers are engaging the prefrontal regions associated with decision making and problem solving. The high distractability of the web means online readers must constantly make choices between different reading paths, reverting to being decoders of information, not deep readers. If we don’t use the skills we will lose them. Citing McLuhan, our tools numb the part of the body they amplify, in this case, the brain. Online reading has its virtues but intelligence requires complementary deep reading, best facilitated by reading books.

The call to literacy may not appeal to millennials. In my book, Slow Reading, I touched on my Gen-X experience that Carr calls a two-act play. Our Analogue Youth was a time when memory work was still a required educational practice. I was compelled to repeat a poem again and again to extreme boredom, discovering only then how I was truly becoming the poem, ultimately winning first prize for my recitation in a regional contest. Like the Baby Boomers, we fully share a memory of the time when print was still the dominant information technology. The second act is our Digital Adulthood. Unlike the Boomers, we were mere teenagers when computers went mainstream. Like the millennials we grew up learning digital technology. Gen-X’ers may be uniquely called upon to make the bridge to literacy for millennials.

Any book that starts with McLuhan and ends quoting Heidegger has my interest. The book extends the question Carr asked in his 2008 article, Is Google Making Us Stupid? “Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory.” I share Carr’s feeling. It is palpable, but I have not been able to put my finger on it till now. In The Shallows, Carr nails it. The richness of my memories has diminished, and “I miss my old brain” (16). As books continue to change along with the web, we need the solid research and analysis that Carr provides on literacy and deep reading.

The Man Who Forgot How To Read by Howard Engel. It is a fierce addiction, reading, and from there it is a slippery slope to writing.

The man who forgot how to readThey hook you early, the pushers, even in pre-school. Maybe some of us have a greater weakness for it than others. It is a fierce addiction, reading, and from there it is a slippery slope to writing. Howard Engel was hooked young. Blame his parents; they read in the house. Soon he was picking his own library books and writing puppet shows. He could not be found without a two or more books on hand. As an adult, he wrote for radio then published a dozen detective novels. He was an addict of the printed word when he forgot how to read.

The Man Who Forgot How to Read is memoir by Engel of a stroke that robbed him of his ability to read. Alexia sine agraphia is a rare condition in which the victim maintains the ability to write, but not read. A frustrating condition, indeed. He could write, but not read what he had just written. Stroke cuts into memory, threatening one’s sense of self; but Engel’s identity was fixed in reading: “I was still a reader. The blast to my brain could not make me otherwise. Reading was hard-wired into me. I could no more stop reading than I could stop my heart. Reading was bone and marrow, lymph and blood to me.” (41)

Step by step, with the help of skilled therapists and dedicated family and friends, Engel learned to read from the beginning again. Once the reading skills were working again, the writing came naturally, first another detective novel in which his protagonist suffers a blow to the head, then this memoir. Engel’s refusal to accept the status of a “former reader”, and his victory over a stroke and brain damage to achieve it, should be a siren call to those who have not yet discovered a passion for reading. Unlike other addictions, the reading vice may take some effort to acquire, but then pays off in lifelong pleasure without regret. Want a fix?

The City of Words by Alberto Manguel. Stories are the first clue to the existence of others.

The city of wordsEmpathy is often mistaken for sympathy. Sympathy is about loving your neighbour; empathy is about loving your enemy. Nice idea, but is it possible? In the City of Words, Alberto Manguel shows how stories are the first clue to the existence of others, and how the creative use of language allows us to understand those quite different than ourselves, so that we may together build a civilized society.

According to legend, Cassandra had both the gift of prophecy and a curse that no one would believe her. No one heeded her prediction of the fall of Troy. Such is the state of storytellers across time. Their language suggests ideas that do not conform to the current Zeitgeist. So the poets were excluded from Plato’s republic, and the literate were persecuted in Nazi Germany. Outsiders. But we need these stories; they serve a vital purpose in unfixing inapt labels, and animating lifeless dogma.

One of our oldest stories, that of Gilgamesh, tells of the discovery of “other”. Gilgamesh is a tyrant king who discovers a wild man, Enkidu, outside the city walls. Gilgamesh brings him into the city, and they become brothers, together more powerful and wonderful than before. We see our evil twin, or doppelganger in many things, including the technology which we fear will supplant us. If we can imagine a way to integrate these perceived evils, we can create a better society.

In the story of Babel, a plan to build a tower to heaven was thwarted by God when he confused the tongues of the builders. Language began as a tool to identify things and keep stock, and without a common language it is difficult to work together; ask the foreigners who come to our cities. But words are not simply our tools; they often take us places we did not expect. It is imagination that gives a sense of hope, progress and the future. Writers create stories in which readers find a hopeful reflection; their interest in turn creates writers to tell more stories. The presence of many tongues can be a blessing, bringing new stories. It may be better to think of the future as an unending stream of stories than a single project or conclusion. Don Quixote is a tale of a hero who does not necessarily win his battle, but moves us with his aspiration.

The theme of the evil foreigner who must be destroyed plays itself out in other stories, often with a chilling outcome. In Jack London’s The Assassin’s Bureau, the assassin’s own rules eventually force him to kill himself. In Arthur C. Clarke’s Space Odyssey 2001, the computer Hal is forced to see the spaceship’s occupants as obstacles that must be killed. In our society, advertising is the new storytelling, the book industry has become business not culture, and the consequences are becoming clearer. The machines of our economics are zeroing in on us. Manguel warns that literature is essential to disrupting this narrow path, to allowing other futures to be imagined, and a better society to be built.

How to Read Slowly by James W. Sire. Why a “Christian Guide”? Slow reading is good for theists of all stripes, as well as atheists and agnostics.

How to read slowlyI recently chanced on James W. Sire’s book, How to Read Slowly: A Christian Guide to Reading with the Mind. That the intended audience of this book is Christians raised an eyebrow: certainly slow reading is good for theists of all stripes, as well as atheists and agnostics. Much of the book is indeed useful for anyone wishing to know tips about how to read slowly. It advises the reader to take the time to read a book’s preface and introduction, have a dictionary handy, and read with a pen in hand for notes. But the deeper purpose of the book is to teach the reader how to pick up on the world view of the author to see if it squares with the Christianity. This raised my other eyebrow; should Christians be wary of writers with divergent belief systems? But the advice is quite practical and useful for anyone. When analyzing non-fiction, the reader can apply philosophical questions, e.g., what is the author’s view on reality. When analyzing fiction, the reader can examine how the plot, theme and characters add up to the author’s vision of life. Biographical, historical and other information can provide context to a reading. The reader is wisely advised to bring a clear self-understanding to the reading.

Two items caught my particular interest. One, it is recommended to “read at your normal rate–or more slowly” (pg. 49). Speed readers are taught how to read as fast as possible, but slow readers should not necessarily try to read as slow as possible. The essence of slow reading is to make a choice about reading rate, perhaps reading quickly over light material, and slowing down for the richer parts. The sense of choice with slow reading is contrasted with the forced quality of much business and educational reading. A feeling of freedom is one of the reasons slow reading appeals to many; it helps recapture the joy of reading. Two, Sire distinguishes reading for entertainment or information from reading for perspective, the slow reading approach that allows one to pick up on subtleties in the text and the writer’s world view. Extending his idea, the face content drops into the background, creating a figure-ground reversal that is sometimes associated in the psychological literature with altered states of consciousness — fascinating.

Sire’s title piqued my awareness of the spiritual dimension of slow reading, and I have since noticed additional references on the benefits of slow reading toward spiritual life. Eugene Peterson wrote Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading: “Peterson is convinced that the way we read the Bible is as important as that we read it.” In a blog post entitled, Martin Luther: Lessons from his life and labor, John Piper admits that as a slow reader, he is encouraged by Luther’s advice: “A student who does not want his labor wasted must so read and reread some good writer that the author is changed, as it were, into his flesh and blood. For a great variety of reading confuses and does not teach. It makes the student like a man who dwells everywhere and, therefore, nowhere in particular.” Again a mystical dimension is brought out here; the subject certainly deserves deeper treatment another day.