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.