Reading as a forgotten art

ReadingEarlier this month (February, 2018), the Globe & Mail published an essay by author Michael Harris titled, “I have forgotten how to read.” In it, he recounted how he recently tried to read a single chapter of a book, but failed. Frustrated, instead turned to TV:

Paragraphs swirled; sentences snapped like twigs; and sentiments bled out. The usual, these days. I drag my vision across the page and process little. Half an hour later, I throw down the book and watch some Netflix.

Which, I think, is the poor choice of alternatives. Giving up doesn’t improve the skill set or fix the problem. As the American politician Claude Pepper is alleged to have said, “Life is like riding a bicycle: you don’t fall off unless you stop pedaling.” Harris, it seems, stopped pedalling before he was even through a mere chapter.

If, as Harris also writes, “mind is plastic,” and he believes his reading skills have diminished, then I would think the solution would be to retrain his mind, to relearn those skills, to strengthen the neural pathways associated with reading and comprehension, rather than continue to encourage them to atrophy. Get back on the bike and pedal harder. Read more, not less. As Groucho Marx quipped: *

I find television very educational. The minute somebody turns it on, I go to the library and read a good book.

Harris hadn’t become illiterate or dyslexic: his reading habits had changed as he immersed himself deeper into today’s social-media-driven technology; a medium that encourages short, emotion-filled, reactive – even knee-jerk – content, the stuff of immediate response, outburst and instant memes, rather than the stuff of deep thought. It’s a self-inflicted wound:

When we become cynical readers – when we read in the disjointed, goal-oriented way that online life encourages – we stop exercising our attention. We stop reading with a sense of faith that some larger purpose may be served. This doesn’t mean we’re reading less – not at all. In fact, we live in a text-gorged society in which the most fleeting thought is a thumb-dash away from posterity. What’s at stake is not whether we read. It’s how we read… The words I write now filter through a new set of criteria. Do they grab; do they anger? Can this be read without care? Are the sentences brief enough? And the thoughts? It’s tempting to let myself become so cynical a writer because I’m already such a cynical reader.

I think the many of us who share part of our lives online and are in constant communication with the social media world through devices understand. Even a passing attempt to keep up with the sheer volume of material on a Facebook timeline or Twitter feed runs in opposition to depth and focus. It becomes the Red Queen’s Race – you run as fast as you can in order to simply stay in the same place. But surrendering to it isn’t the answer.
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Fire and Fury reviewed

Trump and BannonDysfunctional. Childish. Self-centred. Narcissistic. Ideologically myopic. Illiterate. Cranky. Capricious. Arrogant. Scheming. Petty. Ill-educated. No, I’m not writing about our local council (although, yes, all those words apply equally to The Block). These are some of the words that came to mind as I read Michael Wolff’s book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House.

Dysfunctional popped into my mind most often as Wolff described the lurching, staggering, fumbling and bumbling of Trump’s staff and family advisers after their unexpected – and for some unwanted – victory. (I know: curiously coincidental how that description also echoes our own council’s meandering, aimless and destructive governance, but let’s not talk about The Block right now…). Not that it’s surprising: the amount of political experience among the core group and family that stuck together through Trump’s campaign combined was less than an hour’s worth.

It’s like reading about a train wreck described in excruciatingly minute detail: the trajectory of every rivet and bolt as it shakes loose from the engine and flies off into space is chronicled, measured and examined. Or perhaps it’s better described as reading about the antics of an entire kindergarten class where cranky children fed on high-sugar treats are not given sufficient nap time.

And despite my initial expectations, the book is less about Trump than about his minions and the limpets who cling to him. While it’s not flattering about the Ignorati-in-Chief, it scorches the hangers-on. There’s a point made that American democracy could survive Trump and manage well enough if the White House had a competent, experienced, educated and literate staff of professionals to mitigate his inabilities. But with its cast of amateurs and grasping opportunists it hasn’t a chance.

I had already read much of what Wolff described online and in newspapers and magazines (such noteworthy publications as the Washington Post, New York Times, Maclean’s, Harper’s, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone and others which Trump labels ‘fake news’ because they fail to tug their collective forelocks and genuflect to his self-described “very stable” genius). The madcap antics, the sordid affairs, the flailing and failing of Trump’s staff are already as well documented as the president’s own erratic bumbling governance and noxious tweets. But I’ve not had it all served in a single dish before, nor had I been aware of the backgrounds of many of the players. That’s the strength and delight – and fright – of this book.

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Thoughts on reading Ulysses

James Joyce
Onomatopoeia. Odd, sometimes, entertaining too. Like speed bumps that make you slow down and silently mouth the letters. A slow smile at the sound it makes in your head. Alliteration. Anastrophe. Joycean wordplay.

What is that word? A neologism? Or some Irish colloquialism? An anachronism? Another language? Or more playful spelling? So many to stumble over.

Notes. Can’t read Ulysses without the notes. Too many Latin, too many French, too many Gaelic phrases for my monolinguistic brain. Too many Catholic references for my secular upbringing. Too many dips into the classics for my modern education. Irish politics. British politics. Contemporary culture. Jesuits. French authors. Greek tragedies. Lost without the notes.

But notes add to the work. From 930 pages, it expands to almost 1,200. A third larger, a third more to read.

Stream of consciousness? Misleading. That implies a beginning and an end; a source and a destination. A collective movement towards a goal, words flowing in harmony like fish spawning. A direction towards the final outcome. Ulysses is more explosive. A torrent of consciousness. A tsunami. Volcanic eruption of words.

Who would have thought the minutiae of bodily functions so worthy of literature? So many words dedicated to base biological acts.

Was Joyce’s world really so repressed? Were men really so uncomfortable with women and women’s sexuality? If this this the world my parents grew up in, it explains a lot about them – and how they handled my own childhood.

Of course, it’s set in 1904, the hump of the Edwardian era, before the Great War that would sweep away the last vestiges of Victorianism from Europe (although not the USA, where it still has hold). Literary archeology. And it’s Dublin, even further outside my cultural frame of reference than London or New York of that time.

This was banned? This was controversial? This sparked howls of outrage? My, weren’t we close-minded back then. A single episode of The Sopranos has more profanity, more irreverence, more sex. But a lot less introspection.

Who is speaking? Who is thinking? Not always clear. Joyce ignores the niceties of form and eschews formality at the expense of clarity.

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The House on the Borderland

House on the Borderland “But for a few touches of commonplace sentimentality [it] would be a classic of the first water.” So said H. P. Lovecraft of the 1908 novel, The House on the Borderland, by William Hope Hodgson. But, Lovecraft admitted, the book was also a major influence on his own, later work. And for good reason: it created the ‘unknown horror’ effect that Lovecraft (and later writers) exploited so well.

House on the Borderland is a seminal work in its genre and, despite its age, deserves not to be forgotten by modern readers. Here’s a passage from the book:

And then, as I peered, curiously, a new terror came to me; for away up among the dim peaks to my right, I had descried a vast shape of blackness, giantlike. It grew upon my sight. It had an enormous equine head, with gigantic ears, and seemed to peer steadfastly down into the arena. There was that about the pose that gave me the impression of an eternal watchfulness—of having warded that dismal place, through unknown eternities. Slowly, the monster became plainer to me; and then, suddenly, my gaze sprang from it to something further off and higher among the crags. For a long minute, I gazed, fearfully. I was strangely conscious of something not altogether unfamiliar—as though something stirred in the back of my mind. The thing was black, and had four grotesque arms. The features showed indistinctly, ’round the neck, I made out several light-colored objects. Slowly, the details came to me, and I realized, coldly, that they were skulls. Further down the body was another circling belt, showing less dark against the black trunk. Then, even as I puzzled to know what the thing was, a memory slid into my mind, and straightway, I knew that I was looking at a monstrous representation of Kali, the Hindu goddess of death.

You can read or download a copy at Gutenberg.org. It’s not very long – just over 50,000 words, and is a fairly quick read.

Hodgson – whose 140th birthday was celebrated by fans last November (the 100th anniversary of his death is in April, 2018) – was prolific in his lifetime, but is an almost-forgotten figure these days. Only two of his novels – the other being The Night Land (1912) – got any significant attention or popular reprints for many decades after his death. Thanks to the internet, digital files and the magic of on-demand publishing, a lot of his work is available online; five of his novels are now downloadable from Gutenberg. And this slowly growing popularity has seen a few publishers reprinting many (maybe even all) of his works.

While still in the shadows compared to other writers, he is read today by fans of classic horror and early scifi. But he’s not anywhere near a popular writer. In part that may be because better, subsequent writers like Lovecraft, Lord Dunsany and Edgar Rice Burroughs captured (and continue to capture) the public’s imagination. Plus, they wrote about the modern, post-war world: with radio, cars, telephones, movies, steamships and the like. They are easier, I suspect, for modern readers to comprehend than those from the Edwardian era.
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A farewell to 2017

Cicero books, and othersTwenty seventeen has a special significance for me, beyond merely another year in the ever-lengthening calendar of my life. I find it difficult, sometimes, to believe I am as old as I am – who, after all, lives this long? I used to think that. Back then, back in my salad days of my misspent youth, fifty was impossibly old. Sixty? Ancient. Beyond that? Methuselah old.

Or perhaps I simply don’t act my age. I still listen to the Beatles and the music of my youth, and play computer games. I still watch Godzilla movies and play tag with my dog. But my joints tell me a different story some days. What is it about time and age that we never see ourselves as others do? That wrinkled old guy in the mirror is someone else, I swear. The real me is killing orcs and invading dungeons online or running through the park with the dog.

As I age, however, I tend to grow more philosophical, and my attitudes about life and death have trended more and more to the Stoics of late. As I write this, a small pile of books by and about Cicero are stacked nearby (hence the picture above, shown with some other books I’m also reading). I haven’t quite found the meaning of life in the Stoics, but I do lean their way. And I sometimes find my own muse too, in reading Cicero. He was passionate about good governance and would have railed against our current, inept council with all his rhetorical might.

Late December marked 35 years since I met Susan. We met in a bar in Toronto, a serendipitous chance event on a cold evening, and we’ve been together ever since, closest of friends and lovers. I am daily surprised she stuck with me through everything, but it speaks to the iron in her soul. And a quirky compassion for a sometimes obsessed, grumpy old fool. More than half our lives spent together.

We both still recall quite clearly our very first dinner date … but that’s another post. We still go for mini-holidays to Toronto every year, visiting the AGO and ROM, Kensington Market and several bookstores. Always we are happy to return, laden as we are with bags of books.

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