The Long Read Lost

Reading by candlelight
“What we read, how we read, and why we read change how we think, changes that are continuing now at a faster pace,” wrote Maryanne Wolf, a neuroscientist, in her book, Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in the Digital World (Harper Paperbacks, 2019). It’s the sequel to her previous book on reading and neuroscience, Proust and the Squid (Harper, 2007). In that latter book, Wolf famously wrote,

We are not only what we read, we are how we read.

Reading — Marcel Proust called it a “fertile miracle of communication effected in solitude” — is a breathtakingly remarkable, and uniquely human talent, yet one that we have no genetic disposition for, like we have for speaking or for social behaviour. No one is born knowing how to read. It must be learned by each of us individually, painstakingly from a young age and practiced through a lifetime. It is the classic case of nurture over nature. Yet there are an estimated 800 million illiterate people in the world today.

Learning to read changes our brains, rewires our neural networks, creates new connections, and helps us think. Not in a metaphorical sense: the changes have been mapped by neuroscientists like Wolf and her colleagues. Yet reading (and its co-host inventions, writing, and the alphabet; itself even younger at a mere 3,800 years old), is a very recent talent, historically speaking. The oldest known record of writing is a mere 5,500 years old; the oldest Sumerian tablets are about 4,400 years old. The first complete alphabet (ancient Greek: with symbols for vowels as well as consonants) is from around 750 BCE. In modern times, the first book was produced on a Western printing press only about 570 years ago. That’s a remarkably short time in the 300,000-400,000-year history of our species.

“In a span of only six millennia reading became the transformative catalyst for intellectual development within individuals and within literate cultures,” Wolf added. Right from the beginning of writing, stories were part of the written record: the imaginations of ancient civilizations were carved on clay and in stone, for us to read even today.

Literate cultures. The term might refer to cultures which have a reasonably high level in the ability to actually read regardless of its content, but could also refer to a civilization that has a culture of deep, passionate, and lengthy reading: one that celebrates in books, poetry, magazines, and other forms of the written word. It’s a civilization that has book clubs, discusses and shares books, has public libraries and bookstores, poetry festivals, and has plays performed and authors celebrated. A literate culture even has cursive writing (somewhat of a canary in the coal mine of literacy).

We are such a culture, even though — at least from my perspective — we continue to move at an accelerating pace to a more visually-oriented, non-reading culture, away from the written form; a short form culture where the tweet, the sound bite, and the YouTube video all have more reach than a long article or story. Our attachment to many of the longer written forms is dissipating. Long reads online are often prefaced by the initialism TL:DR — “Too Long; Didn’t Read” with a tweet-sized precis for those who will not (or cannot) read the longer piece.

The quality of our reading is not only an index of the quality of our thought, it is our best-known path to developing whole new pathways in the cerebral evolution of our species. There is much at stake in the development of the reading brain and in the quickening changes that now characterize its current, evolving iterations. (P. 2)

We live in an astoundingly complex, complicated, demanding, challenging world. To understand it even at a very basic level, we need to be able to read and read deeply; not simply watch videos or read tweets. We need to ignore the noise of social media and open books, newspapers (real newspapers, not merely the local ad-wrappers), and magazines to get a fulsome explanation of what is happening in our lives. No one can understand or learn about politics, economics, or science from tweets.

Not reading deeply is plunging us into an increasingly anti-intellectual age, suspicious of learning and science. We have world leaders who are barely literate or are even functionally illiterate, and yet who take pride in their ignorance. The result is the proliferation of conspiracy cults, pseudoscience, anti-mask and anti-vaccination movements, and both political and religious fundamentalism (most of which claptrap, not surprisingly, originates from the right wing of the political spectrum).

And it’s not just Donald Trump, although he is the epitome of the illiterate, uninformed, conspiracy-addled leader. Look at the leaders of Turkey, Brazil, Hungary, India, the Philippines, and even here in Ontario: populist (rightwing) leaders like these share similar attributes, including a distrust of institutions, science, and experts. I’ve served with members of our local municipal council who never even read agendas or staff reports, let alone books (we now have a council replete with such non-readers). The result at all levels of government is evident in the decay of public debate, the reduction to populist, slogan-based oratory, slovenly and uninformed decision making, and lackluster governance. But I digress.

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Back to Montaigne

When I find myself in times of trouble,
I go back to read Montaigne.
Seeking words of wisdom,
Read some more…
(to the tune of Let It Be, with apologies to the Beatles)

Michel de MontaigneI was up late these last few nights reading Michel de Montaigne into the wee, dark hours. Although I used to read him rather frequently and found him an inspiration for several posts, some years back, I hadn’t picked him up in ages. But a passing mention in Sterne’s Tristam Shandy made me pick him up again starting with his long essay (69 pages in the Screech edition; 57 in the Frame translation) of “some verses of Virgil.” Which, in typical Montaigne fashion is less about the poet Virgil than about his views on aging, dying, sexuality, religion, marriage, virtue, honesty, and more. Strands of seemingly random thoughts woven into a longer piece. And, of course, abundantly sprinkled with quotations from a wide range of authors.

Montaigne’s greatness doesn’t lie with scientific breakthroughs, astounding discoveries, feats of endurance or strength: it lies with his ability and willingness to both question everything and to think through to his answers. Clearly, reasonably, openly, creatively. And then to put pen to paper and collect his thoughts for the world to read (the printing press has only been in use for just over a century when, in 1580, the Essays were first published). His essays are marvellously witty, thoughtful,  insightful, and remarkably down-to-earth, even more than 400 years later.

You have to admire his willingness to commit to paper his doubts and uncertainties, as well as his passions and his views. This was the century of the Reformation, the Counter-reformation, of Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, and Martin Luther. The Roman Inquisition was in full swing, snaring Galileo, Copernicus, Giordano Bruno, and others in its repressive, orthodox net. Yet Montaigne wrote a spirited defense of the fifteenth-century theologian, Raymond Sebond, whose views about the nature of Christianity were under attack by church conservatives. That was a bold, and dangerous act.

Montaigne was, almost unheard-of for his time, frank and honest (sometimes brutally so) about his views, even when they ran counter to popular, church, or official opinions. His range of interests is broad, and he delights in throwing in tidbits from history, geography, agriculture, war, economics, fashion, philosophy… and in doing so gives us a picture of the 16th-century worldview (complementing that of my other favourite 16th-century author, Niccolo Machiavelli; but Montaigne is even more well-read — and even mentions Machiavelli twice).

Even when I don’t share his views, his faith, or his perspective — often, although not surprising given the chronological divide — I can respect his honesty, his integrity, and his passion for truth and understanding. But the sheer breadth of his vision and his willingness to ponder and question so many things and ideas accepted or rejected in his culture makes him heroic.

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The Cancer Diaries, Part 11

Three Stooges, nyuck, nyuck, nyuckAnaesthetic must be one of the most remarkable inventions of the 20th century. While various forms of anaesthesia have been used since the ancient Egyptians (with varying degrees of effectiveness), it really wasn’t perfected  until the last century. It’s difficult to imagine the horrors of surgery before it became commonly used and as effective as it is today.

Here I was, lying on a table in the operating room, Thursday morning, being covered with a warm blanket by one nurse, while another nurse held a mask over my face to breathe from, and a third prepared to administer my anesthetic via the IV drip (that spelling is for my American readers). The latter nurse said, “In the next thirty seconds you’re going to drift off to sleep…” And then I did. Lights out, like flipping a switch.

Sleep. Mercifully deep and absolute. No dreams, no tossing and turning. No having to get up to pee three or five times. No pushing the cat or dog off my legs. Don’t feel a thing as I am poked and prodded internally. Just sleep.

And then I awoke. Just like that: bang the shutters of the eyelids popped open and I was awake. No slow rise to consciousness, no lingering dream state. No memories either, just a sort of ellipsis between the operating table and the recovery room. And just like that, my surgery was over. Amazing stuff, anaesthetic. Where was I? Ah, yes, my latest surgery.

I know there are readers in the world, as well as many other good people in it, who are no readers at all, who find themselves ill at ease, unless they are let into the whole secret from first to last, of everything which concerns you.

That’s from Chapter IV of Laurence Sternes’ delightful 18th-century novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, more commonly simply referred to as Tristam Shandy. I’m reading it right now, among other books, and this bit amused me. He continues, apologetically, 

It is in pure compliance with this humour of theirs, and from a backwardness in my nature to disappoint any one soul living, that I have been so very particular already. … [I] therefore must beg pardon for going on a little farther in the same way: For which cause, right glad I am, that I have begun the history of myself in the way I have done; and that I am able to go on, tracing everything in it, as Horace says, ab Ovo.

From the egg, that Latin bit from Horace’s Ars Poetica; means from the beginning. So to follow in Shandy’s (or rather Sterne’s) literary footsteps I must go back a bit and explain for those who have not read the previous ten pieces on my cancer, why I was on the operating table again. Put it all in perspective, as it were. I do recommend you read the previous entries, however, to get a more robust story than this precis.

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The Imperialist Economics of Blueberries

Blueberries from PeruThere was a cooler right at the front of the fruit and vegetable section of the local Walmart store packed with clear plastic containers of blueberries. Plump, dark, fresh-looking berries. And value-priced at $2.87 a container. I love blueberries on my morning cereal; these looked inviting, and so inexpensive! Who can resist such a bargain? I put a container in my shopping cart. Only when I got home did I read the label: product of Peru.

Peru lies more than 6,000 km away from me by air; more than eight hours’ flying time from Toronto, plus a two-hour drive north to here.  Not to mention the time to pick, package, sort, distribute, and shelve them. Yet here was a container of what appeared to be recently-picked blueberries selling for less than a cup of coffee, and less — perhaps less than half — than I usually pay at the local farmers’ market for a similar or even smaller amount. How can that be?

How is it possible to pick these fruit, wash, sort, package, refrigerate, ship to a warehouse, sort, distribute, ship to a store, then stock in that store for as little as $2.87? Along that route are hundreds of people, all of whom need to be paid, from pickers to loaders to pilots, drivers, and store personnel. There’s a whole chain of dependencies in getting them from Peru to my local grocery store while still edible, and a staggering cost in fuel.*

Peru, is, of course, just one South American country sending blueberries worldwide, but this year has become the largest exporter of blueberries: 165,000 metric tonnes in 2020, up from 120,000 in 2019. Half of which goes to the USA. Blueberries — native to North America, not Peru— are also grown in Mexico and South Africa. And how convenient for us here that they do so: we can enjoy these fresh fruit well outside our own limited growing season, as we do with so many other vegetables and fruit. And we can enjoy hundreds of others that can’t possibly grow here: limes, grapefruit, avocados, bananas, lychee, kiwi fruit; our grocery stores are well-stocked with all sorts of imports for our eating pleasures. And often so inexpensive.

Yet again: at what cost? Not to us, of course: our grocery and box stores are locked in a penny-pinching competition to offer us the lowest prices, to lure us in with bargains like these, understanding that while we’re here we’ll also buy more. Yet to enjoy our $2.87 package of ripe blueberries, we must accept that we benefit from the cheap labour and even poverty in the home countries where these are picked; wages we could not possibly live on here. And along with those low wages come predictable lower standards of health, quality, and safety: foods contaminated with pesticides and herbicides, or some noxious or even lethal bacteria are, sadly, rather too common (as of Oct. 9, 2020, the Canadian government site listed 4,012 food recalls; however not all of which are for imported produce).

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Manners? Civility? What happened to them?

Robert CrumbI was sitting in my car on main street, recently, waiting for a break in the traffic so I could back out and drive on. My backup lights were lit, my turn signal flashing, so drivers knew I was trying to exit. The parking downtown is nose-first, angled to the sidewalk, so you need to back into the oncoming traffic lane to leave. All I needed was a single driver to stop and allow me out. A few seconds of someone’s time. But even though the traffic light stopped the cars, drivers still came up right behind me to block my exit. Where, I wondered, had people’s manners gone, how had people become so uncivil that they could not even commit a simple act of courtesy?

In his book, Walden, in fact in the very first chapter, Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.” I would offer that today — at least based on the noisome detritus posted on social media — this is more like “lives of loud, rude selfishness and self-inflicted ignorance.” Thoreau never had the opportunity to spend an hour observing people in a grocery store or big box outlet during a pandemic, or during a Black Friday sale, but if he had I suspect his view would be closer to mine.*

Pandemic rules like wearing a mask, social distancing, one-way aisles, and using hand sanitizer serve two functions:  the first and most obvious is to reduce the opportunities to spread the coronavirus, but the second is an ethical test: are you or your fellow humans even aware of or give a shit about others, or just think about yourself? If you do consider the welfare of others as equally important to your own, and you obey the rules, then you at least have some manners.

Some of these rules or policies had to be passed into law, rather than being left as a preferred code of behaviour. Leaving it up to individuals to behave maturely and responsibly, with consideration to others during a pandemic, and expecting people to exhibit a basic understanding of simple hygiene and health failed miserably early on: far too many people quickly proved too selfish, or too stupid, or both to care about others. The utter failure of many adults to act in a mature, civilized, responsible, and non-selfish manner was made evident in the anti-mask demonstrations. Rudeness and selfishness came to the fore too often to leave it up to individuals.

We have laws against littering, jaywalking, parking on sidewalks, defecating and urinating in public, disobeying traffic lights, letting your lawn grow too high, letting your dog run loose, driving while drunk, smoking in public places. All sorts of laws to maintain social order have been passed to enforce what should be automatic, considerate, responsible behaviour (aka manners). But clearly we are not collectively mature or responsible enough for manners alone; to remain even passably civilized, laws are necessary. ***

Manners are a moral imperative, even a virtue. They measure whether people can behave well towards one another without any incentive or motivation to do so. Laws are what we get when we can’t, but manners are equally important as a sign of our ability to govern ourselves as a democracy. Behaving well, behaving mannerly, may not be profitable, but it’s a powerful motivator for anyone not obsessed with mere glitter and material goods. As Edmund Burke wrote in 1796, in his Letters on a Regicide,

Manners are of more importance than laws. Upon them, in a great measure, the laws depend. The law touches us but here and there, and now and then. Manners are what vex or soothe, corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barbarize or refine us, but a constant, steady, uniform, insensible operation, like that of the air we breathe in. They give their whole form and color to our lives. According to their quality, they aid morals, they supply them, or they totally destroy them.

That’s worth repeating: manners are more important than laws. Why? Because they are self-administered and thus show us for who we are, not who others determine we must be. Manners take our measure. In her book, Why Manners Matter (Random House Australia, 2007)**, Lucinda Holdforth explained:

Destroy manners — sweep aside all of a society’s habits, conventions, and patterns of behaviour — and you may well find you have nothing left but chaos. And because human beings cannot live for long in a state of anarchy, sooner or later some form of oppressive authority will step in to restore order on new, more punitive premises.

Which is clearly what is happening in the USA today. President Trump (aka Putin’s Puppet) has behaved abysmally, lacking manners in and out of office: he has insulted, lied, cheated, stolen, squandered taxpayers’ money, given his unqualified children and campaign contributors positions of power, and then bragged about his mannerless and petty behaviour. And he has encouraged his followers to behave similarly: without manners or civility or consideration for others (which they have done). He has done so in order to be able to implement a more repressive state to manage the very chaos he himself created. It’s a subtle, but effective coup.

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Socialism, Communism, and Liberalism

Trumpster fireWatching American political dramas like their presidential elections is both entertaining and frightening. Yet it is also strangely educational. it has taught me a basic tenet: Americans as a people know little to nothing about politics. Not just about international politics, but their own.

It is a commonly held belief outside American borders that Americans are remarkably unaware of the history, politics, leaders, or even existence of other nations, but are often equally ignorant of their own. There are far too many YouTube videos interviewing Americans about both the USA and the world for me to list them, but look at the site yourself to see what I mean.

Sure, many of the US politicians themselves seem to know how their government works (or should work), and may even be masters of their craft, yet from political pronouncements clearly many are also woefully ignorant of political realities. Which explains in part why the general populace is often confused about even things within their own governance system, like the racially-motivated electoral college, how the three branches of government work (or are supposed to work), how executive orders are made, or what the Constitution says (and not merely one or two amendments cherry-picked to support an ideological stance; even their president is remarkably ignorant of this document).

When, for example, Trump implements a tariff on imported goods, his supporters cry in delight that he’s “being tough” on some other nation (as if toughness and nationalism were worthier attributes than alliances and cooperation), without even the slightest understanding that they — his supporters and all other American consumers — will pay the price. Not the other nation, not some foreign government, not some third party like the WTO or UN. The USA is the most consumerist nation on the planet: it’s the consumers who will pay for tariffs because the cost of their goods simply goes up to cover the tariff. But Americans seem not to understand what a tariff actually is: a tax on the things they buy.*

It’s especially evident at election time when the Repugnicans throw around insults and accusations that their opponents are liberals, socialists, communists, and far-left radicals… ooh! Scary! As if America even had a left wing! It only has shades of right; its most moderate politician would still be considered a conservative in many Western nations. But the right will label that person radical, socialist, and even liberal because it’s a dog whistle for rightwing voters. Lions, tigers, and bears, oh my!

This is mere fearmongering akin to calling people witches or warning gullible voters that immigrants will take their jobs: it works best and most efficiently when the audience is ignorant of the facts or is already fixed in their ideology (as in a Trump rally). But like in the Dark Ages, the masses are always susceptible to simplistic rhetoric.

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