The slow death of reading

To me, one of the most depressing stories to come out of 2018 was posted in The Guardian, last August. Its headline read, “Skim reading is the new normal. The effect on society is profound.” Its subhead reads, “When the reading brain skims texts, we don’t have time to grasp complexity, to understand another’s feelings or to perceive beauty. We need a new literacy for the digital age.”

As an avid reader who has a dozen books or so on the go at any time, this is a troubling trend that bodes ill for our collective future and our collective intelligence. We are headed towards a very disparate society of readers and non-readers, literates and non-literates – rather like H. G. Wells’ Morlocks and Eloi.* The author writes,

Unbeknownst to most of us, an invisible, game-changing transformation links everyone in this picture: the neuronal circuit that underlies the brain’s ability to read is subtly, rapidly changing – a change with implications for everyone from the pre-reading toddler to the expert adult.

The author of the piece, neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf, wrote a similar article in The Guardian in 2011 that was titled, “Will the speed of online reading deplete our analytic thought?” Given the rising gullibility of people for codswallop and pseudoscience like the anti-vaxxers, gluten-free fads, astrology, homeopathy, flat earth, creationism and Donald Trump, the answer to that question is a resounding “yes!” A lot of online comment (hardly anything that can be called debate) over major issues is reduced to bumper-sticker slogans and ideological platitudes. I blame it on the reduction of deep reading: too many people don’t take time to read and analyze – i.e. to think.

When the reading brain skims like this, it reduces time allocated to deep reading processes. In other words, we don’t have time to grasp complexity, to understand another’s feelings, to perceive beauty, and to create thoughts of the reader’s own.**

One of the most important concepts presented in the first piece is:

My research depicts how the present reading brain enables the development of some of our most important intellectual and affective processes: internalized knowledge, analogical reasoning, and inference; perspective-taking and empathy; critical analysis and the generation of insight. Research surfacing in many parts of the world now cautions that each of these essential “deep reading” processes may be under threat as we move into digital-based modes of reading.

In other words, the less we read, the dumber we get. All part of the Great Dumbing Down that the internet and social media in particular have accelerated (it really began with TV replacing print media, but that’s another story). This is echoed in part by neuroscientist Susan Greenfield who said in an interview in the New Scientist that our very brain structures are changing through online activity. And not in a good way.

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Dictionary vs Dictionary.com

Concise OEDDid you know that doxastic is a philosophical adjective relating to an individual’s beliefs? Or that doxorubicin was an antibiotic used in treating leukemia? Or that doxy is a 16th century word for mistress and prostitute? That drack is Australian slang for unattractive or dreary? Drabble means to make wet and dirty in muddy water? A downwarp is a broad depression in the earth’s surface? Drail is a weighted fish hook? Dragonnade means quartering troops on a population while dragonet is a small fish but a dragoman is an interpreter? That a dramaturge is a literary editor on a theatre staff?

These are words I read when I was looking up the word doxology last night. They all appear close to doxology, either on the same or the adjacent page. Anyone with even a modicum of curiosity opening a dictionary can find these and other words in your search for the meaning of an unfamiliar or uncommon word. In fact, it’s quite entertaining to simply open a dictionary at any random page and read because you are likely to learn something new each time (well, perhaps less so if you use one of the generic no-name dictionaries you bought in the box store).

My bedside dictionary is the Concise Oxford, but I also have several other Oxford editions, a Random House, Merriam Webster, and Chambers, plus some others. I often refer to several for a more comprehensive understanding of a word. And yes, I do keep one by the bed because I read a lot before sleep and sometimes encounter unfamiliar words. Oxford because it’s simply the best, I like the layout and typography, and it’s English, not American.
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Storytelling cubes

You don’t expect Wal Mart to be the source for literary tools, but if you amble into the section crammed with toys, you can pick up a set of Rory’s Story Cubes for just $10 (the base set). Now, I realize these are meant as a creative game for children and/or families (marked ages 8+), but they are actually an ingenious little tool for plot development and ideas in storytelling. And for some exercises in creative thinking.

Wait, you say: they’re just dice with pictures. Can pictures alone make a story? Well, yes: just look at Xu Bing’s Book from the Ground: from point to point (I mentioned this in an earlier post) – composed “…entirely of symbols and icons that are universally understood.” And on Indigo’s site as, “A book without words, recounting a day in the life of an office worker, told completely in the symbols, icons, and logos of modern life.”

No words at all. But Xu’s book is not so much a story as a rather detailled diary of a day in one person’s life. Get up, dress, go to work, have coffee… it’s not the stuff of high drama. It’s rather mundane once you figure it out.

And reading it is as much an exercise in puzzle solving as anything else. With each line parsed, you translate each symbol into a reasonable syntax and grammar so it makes verbal sense. Sometimes you have to ‘rewrite’ it in your head to make it scan properly in something that approximates English (or whatever your native language is, because one of the points he makes with this book is that the chosen symbols are ‘universal’). In fact, while there is a clear narrative, it’s not that hard to revision it by giving alternate meaning to some of the symbols. There’s a companion volume I recommend you also get if the original intrigues you.

But his point is that we can communicate with something other than words or writing. I agree, albeit not as well or as richly as we can with words.

Anyway, I bought a set of Story Cubes for my grandkids, and snuck one into the cart for myself. Only this month, on a trip to Toronto, did I get a set of the company’s “action” cubes and finally get around to tinkering with them (in part because I started re-examining William Cook’s bizarre, intriguing book, Plotto) and the nature of procedurally-created narrative (here’s an excellent piece about that, by the way…)

First a brief description of the base set: nine six-sided dice, each with a simple, different image engraved on each side (a total of 54 images – you can see them all on Pinterest). There are instructions for three types of games: one person to make up a ‘once upon a time’ story from the results of rolling all nine dice; one person to make up a theme-based story from the dice and one in which multiple players contribute to a collective story.

The packaging copy promises more than ten million combinations, based on the simple calculation of 6^9. That seems a bit over-stated, but perhaps that suggests combinations from the dice being laid out in any order, not simply based on the order of throwing.*

The images on the faces are fairly obvious, but a few might cause some confusion depending on your cultural experiences. The letter “L” inside a box is the British symbol for Learner (as in learning to drive – the company is from England). There’s a scarab beetle, an abacus and what seems a compass rose of sorts (see it in the picture of the package, above). Then there’s that slightly creepy shadow monster (in the topmost picture, far right bottom) and something that may be a demon or dragon (see left image).

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Channelling John Stuart Mill

In the opening few pages of his essay On Liberty, John Stuart Mill warned about the “tyranny of the prevailing opinion.” Anyone familiar with the mob mentality than can erupt on social media, its potential for divisiveness and the platform’s inherent weakness to be manipulated by outside forces (such as Russia) would consider Mill’s words as topical today. 

Mill was writing in this essay about, “…the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual” and how to contain the “tyranny of the majority.”*

He was passionate about individuality and the freedom of the individual, warning against state control (thought or otherwise)  by any means for any reason other than one, and would have, I suspect, been aghast at today’s social media as a tool for manipulating public opinion (in a way the late Neil Postman would have appreciated**):

…there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own. There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence; and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs, as protection against political despotism.

The current rise of right-wing conformity to nationalist, religious and racist ideologies masquerading as populism poses a similar threat to individual freedoms. Populist movements threaten western democracies by attacking the fundamental principles of an open, free, inclusive and democratic society and replacing them with conformity to restrictive, exclusive nationalist and racist views.

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Pollan’s Food fallacies

Food Rules, by Michael Pollan“Don’t overlook the oily little fishes,” is rule 32 in Michael Pollan’s small book, “Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual” (Penguin Books, 2009). I recently acquired a copy. I’ve read Pollan’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and have his In Defence of Food on my shelves for summer reading and have two other titles by him on my wish list. I’ve enjoyed his work so far. Maybe not so much this time around.

I am skeptical about any attempt to reduce any subject to a set of basic rules because life is way too complicated for that sort of ideology. I have a particular disdain for self-help books and life-coach videos as being intellectual pablum. Pollan’s book is self-described on the back cover as “a definitive compendium of food wisdom.” Hyperbole like this always makes me cautious and raised my skeptic’s hackles.

As the New York Times points out in its review of the book, is a professor of science journalism in the USA, not a biochemist or nutritionist or even a renowned chef. But Pollan is a good writer with credentials, so I decided to give it a chance.

As someone interested in eating and food – from many aspects: historical, social, botanical, zoological, industrial, cooking and ethical among them – I am always keen to learn more and read what others say about eating. In Food Rules, Pollan offers sixty four rules with a brief explanation of each (you can read the whole list here). It’s described on the book jacket as as “indispensable handbook” full of “straightforward, memorable rules for eating wisely.”

Well, I beg to differ. Yes, it has some wisdom – especially for the junk-food-sugar-pop-and-energy-drink-pizza-and-doughnut crowd. But some of it is the same sort of ideological, anti-science claptrap you get from the Food Babe or the anti-GMO crowd. Diaphanous piffle, some of it. And way too arbitrary – at least when you read just the rule without bothering to delve into his (sometimes too brief) explanations that follow it.
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Found in translation

Into EnglishLanguage translation fascinates me. It’s a mix of language skill, art, interpretation, science and, apparently, divination. Maybe even magic.

Going from one language into another is far from a simple step of swapping words in dictionary manner – Flaubert’s le mot juste. Any fool can do that. Hell, even Google can. A single word can be a fulcrum, and the decision to use one word instead of another can utterly change the meaning. I wrote about this in The Municipal Machiavelli. The translator’s choice of even a single word – in that case the choice between the English words ruin and destruction – can alter the reader’s emotions, understanding and appreciation of a work.*

Back in the 17th century, English poet, satirist and translator John Dryden divided translations into three forms:

…metaphrase, paraphrase, and imitation. Metaphrase is literal, word-for-word translation; paraphrase follows the sense of the author, rather than his precise words; imitation departs from the original at the pleasure of the translator, and really constructs a new poem on the basis of the old. Dryden rejects the two extremes of metaphrase and imitation, and chooses the middle way of paraphrase.(Full article here)

Dryden explained his approach in his introduction to his translation of Ovid’s Epistles (1680), the work that launched his late-life career as a translator. He evidently gave the process a lot of thought:

All Translation I suppose may be reduced to these three heads.
First, that of Metaphrase, or turning an Authour word by word, and Line by Line, from one Language into another. Thus, or near this manner, was Horace his Art of Poetry translated by Ben. Johnson. The second way is that of Paraphrase, or Translation with Latitude, where the Authour is kept in view by the Translator, so as never to be lost, but his words are not so strictly follow’d as his sense, and that too is admitted to be amplyfied, but not alter’d. Such is Mr. Waller’s Translation of Virgils Fourth Aeneid. The Third way is that of Imitation, where the Translator (if now he has not lost that Name) assumes the liberty not only to vary from the words and sence, but to forsake them both as he sees occasion: and taking only some general hints from the Original, to run division on the ground-work, as he pleases. Such is Mr. Cowley’s practice in turning two Odes of Pindar, and one of Horace into English.
Concerning the first of these Methods, our Master Horace has given us this Caution, Nec verbum verbo curabis reddere, fidus
Interpres — Nor word for word too faithfully translate.

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