Monday, December 31, 2007

Why Should We Read?

I just finished reading a most interesting article in the New Yorker. Caleb Crain's "Twilight of the Books" decries the decline in reading (supported by substantial data) and examines some of the differences between literate and illiterate learning. I recommend reading the entire article, but here are few excerpts upon which I'd like to comment.

In an oral culture, cliché and stereotype are valued, as accumulations of wisdom, and analysis is frowned upon, for putting those accumulations at risk. There's no such concept as plagiarism, and redundancy is an asset that helps an audience follow a complex argument...Since there's no way to erase a mistake invisibly, as one may in writing, speakers tend not to correct themselves at all. Words have their present meanings but no older ones, and if the past seems to tell a story with values different from current ones, it is either forgotten or silently adjusted. As the scholars Jack Goody and Ian Watt observed, it is only in a literate culture that the past's inconsistencies have to be accounted for, a process that encourages skepticism and forces history to diverge from myth."

I can think of entire groups of people who are probably cursing Gutenberg. :-)

While I'm not ready to indict oral culture (and I think that "cliché" and "stereotype" take on slightly different meanings in an illiterate context, given that those terms are from the language of literacy), I do believe that a decline in reading is contributing much to the ignorance and apathy so prevalent in the world. Reading is force-fed in the schools, but often what is missing is the other component: writing. Writing forces critical thinking. Multiple choice options may test basic comprehension of facts, but they do not test the ability of the student to engage with the material in a critical way. The ball is red. The ball belongs to Sam. The child has learned two bits of data but has not been given any kind of encouragement to think creatively (one of the biggest benefits to be had in reading books!) If reading, from an early age, is merely the conveyance of information, where is the motivation to read? Why not watch television, which can also convey information? Television is entertaining, but the images come so quickly, there is little time to think beyond them (although some will analyze these images afterward). There is no "pause" button necessary in reading. And chapters are not determined by advertising money.

In citing data regarding the increased participation of readers in cultural activities and voting, Crain offers:

"Perhaps readers venture so readily outside because what they experience in solitude gives them confidence. Perhaps reading is a prototype of independence. No matter how much one worships an author, Proust wrote, "all he can do is give us desires." Reading somehow gives us the boldness to act on them. Such a habit might be quite dangerous for a democracy to lose."

Food for thought, yes?

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Sunday Philosophy Club Review

50 BOOK CHALLENGE 2007 Number 23
BOOK: The Sunday Philosophy Club (An Isabel Dalhousie Mystery)
AUTHOR: Alexander McCall Smith
PUBLISHER: (c) 2004/ Anchor Books, 2005
PAGES: 247
GENRE: Mystery
4 out of 5 stars

Well, I fit one more book into 2007. This is the first book in the Isabel Dalhousie series, and while fans of the Ladies' No. 1 Detective Agency series will recognize the folksy and cozy narrative style, Isabel Dalhousie is a different kind of protagonist than Mma Ramotswe.

Like the Ladies' No. 1 Detective Agency books, this story is not plot driven, but character driven. Like the Homer Kelly mysteries of Jane Langton, McCall Smith's mysteries tend to be on the lighter side (relatively gore-free), but filled with historical and cultural references. Isabel is a philosopher, and as the editor of the Journal of Applied Ethics, manages to view her interaction with the world as one large moral quandary. While she may consider Kant in her musings on every day situations, she is a very human character, subject to the same temptations and foibles as her non-philosopher friends.

A basic understanding of general philosophical trends is helpful, but by no means necessary, to enjoy this book. The philosophical references are not overbearing and do not have the same relevancy that they have in the work of Umberto Eco, for example. The characters are vivid and are solid stock for a series. The actual mystery is not central to the story, which is more focused on Isabel's relationship to the world around her. A very good read for a rainy day.

Books 1-22:
1. Getting Things Done--David Allen (nonfic)
2. The Geography of Nowhere--Howard Kunstler (nonfic)
3. Misreadings--Umberto Eco (essays)
4. The Curtain--Milan Kundera (litcrit)
5. Bach Among the Theologians--Jaroslav Pelikan (nonfic)
6. 40 Days & 40 Bytes: Making Computers Work for Your Congregation (nonfic)
7. The Witch of Portobello--Paulo Coelho (fiction)
8. Suffer The Little Children--Peter Tremayne (mystery)
9. The Dante Club-Matthew Pearl (mystery)
10. The Audacity of Hope--Barack Obama (nonfic)
11. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows--JK Rowling (fiction)
12. What is The What--Dave Eggers (fiction)
13. The Good Husband of Zebra Drive--Alexander McCall Smith (fiction)
14. The City of Ladies--Christine de Pizan (treatise)
15. Over the Edge: Death in the Grand Canyon--Michael Ghiglieri (nonfic)
16. That Hideous Strength (Book 3 of the Space Trilogy)-C.S. Lewis (fiction)
17. Consider the Lobster-David Foster Wallace (essays)
18. Writing to Learn-William Zinsser (nonfic)
19. A Home At the End of the World-Michael Cunningham (fiction)
20. Muscular Re-training for Pain Free Living--Craig Williamson (self-help)
21. Music in American Life-Jacques Barzun (nonfic)
22. House of Shadows- The Medieval Murderers (fiction/mystery)


In an effort to organize all my various interests, I have established this separate blog to talk about: BOOKS!

I love to read, and I wanted a place where I could write about the books I've read and the books I am reading. I often have thoughts BEFORE I finish a book and want to write them down here. Hopefully, folks will chime in with their comments.

Musicologically-oriented books will still be discussed over at Musically Miscellaneous Mayhem, but all other books will have a place here.

Reading NOW (I seem to be going through a non-fiction phase):
The Omnivore's Dilemma (Michael Pollan)
The First Christmas (Marcus Borg & John Dominic Crossan)
Three Classics in the Aesthetics of Music (Debussy, Busoni & Ives)

Just finished: The Sunday Philosophy Club (Alexander McCall Smith)

I participated in the 50 Book Challenge for 2007, and came in well under at 22. I plan to change that in 2008.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Christine de Pizan's City of Ladies

50 Book Challenge #14: The City of Ladies by Christine de Pizan (trans. Rosalind Brown-Grant, Penguin Classics, 1999).

Christine de Pizan, writing in the year 1405, writes a treatise on feminist equality by way of a dialogue with personifications of Reason, Rectitude and Justice. These three "sisters" help Christine to edify and fortify her "City of Ladies" wherein women are able to celebrate their full potential, unhindered by the malevolent misogyny so prevalent to the time.

While Reason, Rectitude and Justice rattle off a laundry list of historical female exemplars, the real value of the treatise lies with Christine herself. While the Christine in the book plays the part of the virtuous, but naive, young woman, the subtext makes clear that Christine de Pizan is an intellectual force with which to be reckoned. She demonstrates a knowledge of literature, philosophy, and rhetoric that was inaccessible to many women of the time. If her argument fails in any sense, it is only in that she fails to address how women might rise above their station.

And while Christine focuses on negating the misogynistic assertions of other writers, her own feminist thought has its limits. She admits, through the voice of Reason, that it would "not be right for [women] to abandon their customary modesty and to go about bringing cases before a court." It is, however, necessary for Christine to abandon her own modesty, which she does in several instances, particularly through self-referencing her earlier related works. The dialogue style enables her to do this without too much self-aggrandizement.

While none of the ideas contained within The City of Ladies will shock the 21st century western mind, the larger lesson on the power of the word is invaluable.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Harry Potter No. 7 & What is the What

No. 11

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by JK Rowling (Scholastic, 2007)

In order to be "spoiler-free" this will be necessarily brief. Suffice to say, I felt this was one of the better books in the series. Rowling did a very good job of tying up most of the loose ends. I did feel she moved too quickly through the last parts of the book, breezing through points where I wished to linger. My harshest criticism of the book is the Epilogue--I found it incredibly juvenile (it brought Harry Potter back to the level of mundane chidren's literature) and unnecessary.

No. 12
What Is The What by Dave Eggers (McSweeney's, 2006).

To call this a "novel" might underestimate its truth and urgency. This is very much a work of non-fiction. The life of Valentino Achak Deng is representative of thousands upon thousands of lives in Sudan in its tales of struggle and oppression. While the book sensitively addresses a topic that is hurendous and heartbreaking in and of itself, the narration is not overly sentimentalized. Eggers and Deng weave in humor, joy, and small victories through the tragedies of the Lost Boys of Sudan.

Valentino Achak Deng is both evidence of the resiliency of the human spirit and a beacon of hope for the future. There are moments in the book that call us out of our comfortable existence, and there are moments when we recognize that from which we also seek refuge. It is a compelling read about the human condition and should be compulsory reading for anyone wishing to remain ignorant about the struggles of Africa. To ignore Sudan is to ignore humankind.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Barack Obama's Audacity of Hope

50 Book Challenge #10: The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama (Crown Publishers, 2006) 362 pp.

This book demonstrates eloquence, understanding, and an intense passion for this country and what it should stand for. Obama writes beautifully, with focus, but with the intensity of someone who is anticipating the arguments before they've been made. And that isn't such a bad thing, particularly for someone who is running for President. He does, however, need a better editor. Obama relies too heavily on anecdotes and sometimes gets a tad formulaic in his presentation of each chapter. The points are made, but then at times, run into the ground by an overabundance of examples.

That aside, the book is very well-structured. He wisely ends with "Family" to leave the reader with the best impression of a man who isn't afraid to extol his wife's domestic and professional abilities, but without the sense of hero worship. He's not afraid to express his love in real terms or to admit the struggles in their marriage. It is in this final chapter than the anecdotes ring most true.

However, for those that believe Obama is too "green" to be President, I'd hold off until you read this book. He has a better understanding of history, law, politics and social justice than most people on Capitol Hill. He's managed to move forward (up?) in his career, but has always had one foot firmly planted in the neighborhoods of his constituents.

It is a shame that those who do not support Obama are unlikely to read this book, as it is a revealing portrait...not set on changing political views, but opening up an honest dialogue...a dialogue very much absent from current American politics.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Pelikan's Bach Among the Theologians & 40 Days and 40 Bytes

Review: Bach Among the Theologians by Jaroslav Pelikan. (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1986).

Pelikan's work is an unsentimental look at the influence of Pietism and evangelical thought on a composer who has been too often oversimplified as "staunchly Lutheran." He questions the assumptions we make based on a standardized "psychobiography."

Not surprisingly, there is not an in-depth engagement with the music (he relies heavily on Spitta, Schweitzer, etc.), but Pelikan does offer some excellent textual analyses. He promotes a re-reading of Bach's career, demonstrating that a lack of sacred output in Cöthen did not necessarily define a "low point" for the composer.

While the book as a whole seems to lack cohesion in some places, it does function very well as a set of separate essays. Particularly cogent are the chapters on ""Mediation on Human Redemption" in the St. Matthew Passion" and "Pietism, Piety and Devotion in Bach's Cantatas." The book is an important contribution to interdisciplinary dialogue about the figureheads of classical music and should be embraced in that spirit.

Review: 40 Days & 40 Bytes: Making Computers Work for your Congregation by Aaron Spiegel, Nancy Armstrong and Brent Bill. (Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 2004)

40 Days & 40 Bytes is an excellent resource for congregations who may be in the beginning stages of electronic fortification or who may be looking to streamline their electronic efficiency. While not focused heavily on websites and e-evangelism, the book offers a thorough review of all considerations when buying CMS (congregational management software), computers, and setting up a network. It offers several helpful appendices that serve as checklists, including: "Congregational Culture Questions" and a "Technology Assessment Form."

The book is set up in such a way that you can skip irrelevant sections (some chapters are devoted to the general basics, like defining a CPU, for example). Infused with good humor and an ecumenical spirit, 40 Days & 40 Bytes is one of the best resources I have seen for the non-techie layperson interested in helping move their congregation into the 21st century.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Milan Kundera's The Curtain

Review: The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts by Milan Kundera. Trans. from French by Linda Asher. (New York: Harper Collins, 2005) 168pp.

Milan Kundera's essay draws the curtain back to reveal the treasures of "die Weltliteratur" as he traces the threads of continuity in novels by Rabelais, Cervantes, Fielding, Dostoevsky, Kafka and many more. He eschews the cultural "isms" that weigh down our understanding of literature.
Although a work of non-fiction, The Curtain is a beautiful exposition on aesthetics as it is applied not only to literature, but to music as well. Kundera tells us to read and re-read with new eyes, unfettered by pre-imposed cultural and socio-economic distinctions.
As Kundera outlines the "fragility of human certainties" found is so much of the world's great literature and implores us to understand the true worth of the novel so that we can embrace both its history and its essence. This is a poetic work of literary criticism that will be a worthwhile read for anyone interested in literary art.

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

David Allen's Getting Things Done

BOOK #1: Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen

The self-help book industry runs rampant with cliches, euphemisms and gimmicks. Allen's book is a breath of fresh air in that it consolidates the most sound approaches in a way that speaks volumes to both the high-powered CEO and the graduate student just trying to get her dissertation organized!

Allen's approach is centered around the idea that "things that have your attention should have your INTENTION." Although we know that is common sense, Allen offers a method of storing and processing the multitude of attention items, so that one can focus on one item at a time without worry about what's on the back-burner.

In addition to offering concrete ideas for organization, Allen also addresses the emotional and psychological impediments to getting things done. Unlike other authors, he does not patronize his readers or make them believe that they should aspire to be paragons of organizational virtue. He's a realist and offers many instances of "if you can't do this, try this."

Even if one does not adapt Allen's entire system for a lifetime, components like the "2-minute rule" and the "Next Action Decision Making Standard" will positively impact personal productivity and mindset. This book will NOT help those who aren't yet at the place where they want to make a positive change.

Allen has defined the "core methods that don't change with the times, and which, when applied, always work." Having read many books on organization and procrastination, I do believe this is the last book I will need to read.