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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Shakespeare’s Mirror

Grant that, and then is death a benefit.
So are we Caesar’s friends, that have abridged
His time of fearing death. Stoop, Romans, stoop,
And let us bathe our hands in Caesar’s blood
Up to the elbows and besmear our swords.
Then walk we forth, even to the marketplace,
And, waving our red weapons o’er our heads,
Let’s all cry “Peace, freedom, and liberty!”
Shakespeare: Julius Caesar Act 3 Sc 1.

I was thinking about this play and how well it related to the events of this era, a time when Trump’s domestic terrorists are killing their fellow citizens. A time when an armed teenager walks blithely past the police waving his assault rifle after murdering unarmed protestors. A time when the neo-Nazis in the Repugnican camp kill their fellow citizens for a twisted vision of freedom and liberty.

Casca’s description  of walking through Rome the night before Caesar’s murder is full of omens and portents. He asks Cicero what might be asked of politicians today, “Are not you moved, when all the sway of earth/ Shakes like a thing unfirm?” And in the antifa and Black Lives Matter protests, people today see similar omens and portents, see their fears and hopes in the flames.*

King TrumpI was thinking about how in this play Shakespeare showed us a nation polarized into two deeply-divided camps, surrounded by the swirling violence of mobs, as demagogues railed at the citizenry inciting them to madness. There’s a dictator who wants to be king, and those who fight to restore the republic. There are corrupt and honest people on both sides, opportunists and true believers. The only thing missing from the comparison between Shakespeare’s ancient Rome and today’s USA is the overt racism that motivates Trump’s followers.

Earlier in the play, Brutus mulls over the nature of tyranny and power, saying,

Th’ abuse of greatness is when it disjoins remorse from power.
Julius Caesar (Act 2, Sc.1)

Again, how well this could be applied to the narcissistic Trump and his callous disregard for the consequences of his actions, or for the victims of his blundering and misadventures (e.g. the 183,000 dead from his mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic). One could easily find more lines that relate equally well in this and the Bard’s other works. Like the line from Coriolanus, Act 2, Sc. 2,

“…there had been many great men that have flattered the people, who ne’er loved them…”

Or how about Queen Margaret, in Henry VI Part 3 (Act 3, Sc. 3) saying,

For how can tyrants safely govern home,
Unless abroad they purchase great alliance?

Now think about Trump and his kowtowing subservience to Vladimir Putin and America’s enemy, Russia, and all Trump has done to further Russian interests… or how about Pericles warning in Pericles, Act 1 Sc. 2, that,

‘Tis time to fear when tyrants seem to kiss.

And then consider Trump’s passionate, even homoerotic, affection for North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong Un…

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I Struggle With Milton

Blake's vision of Milton
Confession time: I find a lot of epic or narrative poetry a slog. Milton, Homer, Dante… I have read my way into them all, but unlike my other books, I never get very far in any of them at each reading, although I make the effort and do so often. I don’t even enjoy reading Shakespeare’s two long poems, Venus and Adonis, and The Rape of Lucrece, and I read everything else by the bard with great relish. 

It’s odd because I love reading Chaucer’s poetry, even his longer pieces. I delight in Shakespeare’s sonnets. I have dozens of collections of works by poets like Auden, Yeats, Frost, Pound, Stevens, Lorca, Cummings, Eliot, Cohen, Dickinson, Horace, Rumi, Catullus, Li Po, Williams, Ginsburg, and many, many others. I have read the Gilgamesh and Beowulf epics in poetic form, both several times in different translations and enjoyed them. I have translations of poets from around the world. I have limericks and numerous books filled with Don Marquis’ Archy and Mehitabel poems. I read the poems in the Tanakh and in the 1,001 Arabian Nights. I read the blank verse in Shakespeare’s plays, especially his great soliloquies.

And I enjoy reading them all.

So it’s not the poetic form that stymies me: I like poetry in almost all of its styles and forms. And it’s not the reading: I consume books, reading hundreds of pages a day spread across a half-dozen or more books most days. But when I pick up Milton, as I am doing these days, I find I read like I’m wading through molasses.

Nor is it the author. I find in Milton great lines, masterful language, powerful emotions. I marvel at his skill and his vocabulary. The story he tells is rich and complex, with well-imagined and deep characters. Yet when I pick him up, time moves at a slower speed. Ditto with Homer and Dante.

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The Long Read part 2

Books!

In my previous post I wrote about reading during the lockdown, particularly delving into some longer reads like War and Peace. This time gives us ample opportunity to tackle books that may have daunted us before. And, as I previously wrote, some of these are my ‘books-to-read-upon-retirement’ titles.

Well, I recently finished War and Peace and still think it’s worth tackling, although I also believe Tolstoy could have benefitted from a more parsimonious editor (speaking as a former book, magazine, and newspaper editor)

The story is full of drama, passion, war, and romance, but he all-too-often meandered from the plot into commentary about war, Napoleon, Kutuzov, politics, and leadership. These commentaries tend to obfuscate the story and dilute the drama. In fact, ninety percent of the epilogue could be discarded to the benefit of the pacing. But I digress. What I wanted to write about here are some other reading choices for our lockdown, some of which are pictured above.

Arabian NightsFirst, the Arabian Nights, also known as One Thousand and One Nights. Thanks to Disney and Hollywood, many people are aware of some portions of this collection of tales such as the stories about Sinbad, Ali Baba, and Aladdin, but there are so many, many more tales in these books. If you even read just one story a night (plus the apocryphal material such as Sinbad), it would take more than three years to finish them all. But most of the stories (nights) are relatively short, so you can read two or three or even more at one sitting.

Since the tales tend to lead from one to another (in the classic cliffhanger tradition, they were spun out to keep the prince occupied so he wouldn’t kill the storyteller, although sometimes the connections are a bit thin), reading more than one at a time helps keep the continuity of the tales.

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Social distancing and reading

War & PeaceWith every responsible, mature adult practicing social distancing and self-isolation these days, it means spending lots of time at home, alone or within the small family unit. Trying for some, but it’s the perfect time to catch up on your reading, to explore new authors, to discover the contentment of a comfortable chair, a cup of tea, and a novel. The social-distancing period can become not just a burden, but a great opportunity for immersing yourself in books.

But with so many choices, what should I read, you ask. Blogger/editor Sara Reggiani, writing from Italy in Life in Quarantine, asked, plaintively,

Stay home, read a book! yells everyone, but how am I to know which book I need amidst this din of suggestions that often seem like just another attempt to impose one’s own identity and tastes onto someone else?

A sentiment I don’t agree with: to me, every book suggestion is an opportunity to discover a new author, a new subject, a new way of expression. I do not want to impose my tastes on anyone, but I do have some suggestions, one in particular. The nature of our current solitude offers new possibilities to tackle some longer, more demanding works.

Let me digress a moment. For decades, I’ve collected books (let’s not call it hoarding, as if these were rolls of toilet paper) and put them aside to read “when I retired” as I kept telling myself. But when I actually retired, some years ago — only semi-retired, however — I found I had very little extra time on my hands, what with socializing, gardening, housework, dog and cat care, shopping, some freelance work, committee activities, writing, playing music, coffee with friends, online gaming, and so on.

Back in the 1970s and ’80s, I was heavily influenced in my reading by friends who discovered authors and titles sooner, then introduced me to them. That’s how I got to know (and read) Dostoyevsky, Marquez, Dickens, Bulgakov, Silverberg, Dumas, Machiavelli, and many others. But sometimes after I started to read them, I got distracted by other books, so they returned to the shelf for that imaginary, later period.

Today, with the socializing aspect of my life severely pared down, I can, at last, get to some of those books. My first recommendation is on that list. I’ll have more to discuss in later posts, but first…

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I’m Reading as Fast as I Can

Books, and more booksI don’t recall just when I started putting books aside to read, or perhaps just finish, when I retired. I had this naive, romantic idea that upon retirement, at the age of 65 or thereabouts, I would be able to spend my time puttering around the house and garden, carting a bag of books from place to place, to living out my final years in the warm glow of reading and cups of tea.

Books have long lives in my library. Putting one aside to reach for another, and then consigning it to an imagined peaceful future where I would have more time to devote to it, instead of pausing for a few months while I explored other titles, must have become a practice some time ago. I just can’t recall exactly when.

Years and years ago, I suppose; so many they blur into the haze of faded memory. Partly due, I suspect, to my habit of reading a chapter in one book, then picking up another to read some, then another and so on. Seldom since my teens have I read a book cover-to-cover at the exclusion of others. Some sit unread for months, others years, before being taken up again. I always have a dozen on the go at any time, piled beside my bed for reading at night.

Yet more booksNow and then I come across a book on my shelves that I can actually recall buying it and deliberately putting it aside for “later.” And I find others that I started and read some small number of chapters before putting the book down to finish when the mythical golden years arrived. Ah, but those years are here (more leaden than golden), and I’m still building the library, piling books upon books. Still finding new titles I want to own and, eventually, read. Still haunting bookshops and publishers’ websites.

Where did I go wrong in my retirement planning? Or, in my case, semi-retirement…

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