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14 DECEMBER, 2011

Marginalia and the Yin-Yang of Reading and Writing

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The bibliophile’s property rights, or why the osmosis of agreement and disagreement belongs in a book’s margins.

The acts of reading and writing have always been intertwined, a kind of fundamental yin-yang of how ideas travel and permeate minds. Marginalia — those fragments of thought and seeds of insight we scribble in the margins of a book — have a social life all their own. But what is the future of marginalia in the age of the ebook? One answer came recently with the soft launch of findings, a new platform masterminded by Betaworks’ John Borthwick and my favorite nonfiction author, Steven Johnson, allowing you to save, export, and share excerpts from what you’re reading online and on your Kindle.

Yet, digital platforms aside, hardly anything captures both the utilitarian necessity and cultural mesmerism of marginalia better than this excerpt from the classic How to Read a Book, originally written by Mortimer Adler in 1940 and revised with Charles van Doren in 1972:

When you buy a book, you establish a property right in it, just as you do in clothes or furniture when you buy and pay for them. But the act of purchase is actually only the prelude to possession in the case of a book. Full ownership of a book only comes when you have made it a part of yourself, and the best way to make yourself a part of it — which comes to the same thing — is by writing in it.

Why is marking a book indispensable to reading it? First, it keeps you awake — not merely conscious, but wide awake. Second, reading, if it is active, is thinking, and thinking tends to express itself in words, spoken or written. The person who says he knows what he thinks but cannot express it usually does not know what he thinks. Third, writing your reactions down helps you to remember the thoughts of the author.

Reading a book should be a conversation between you and the author. Presumably he knows more about the subject than you do; if not, you probably should not be bothering with his book. But understanding is a two-way operation; the learner has to question himself and question the teacher, once he understands what the teacher is saying. Marking a book is literally an expression of your differences or your agreements with the author. It is the highest respect you can pay him.”

How marginalia will live on may be up for debate, but whether they will is not — they’re simply too essential a canvas for digesting and disputing concepts, too key a voice box for our inner monologue about the world of words and ideas.

HT reddit books

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14 DECEMBER, 2011

Alter Ego: Portraits of Gamers Next to Their Avatars

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The real humanity of virtual worlds, or what imaginary public personas reveal about private personhood.

In 2003, British photographer Robbie Cooper was shooting the divorced CEO of a company, who shared that he used virtual world games to play with his children, a meeting them every evening in Everquest, where they would play and chat about mundane things like school and their mother. It was a way for him to connect with his kids, to whom he had little access after the divorce. Cooper recalls:

His description of the banal but emotionally important exchange, taking place in the vivid fantasy of the game, got me thinking about the nature of the game itself; it’s a world of surface appearances and symbols. Within that, their interaction had been reduced to text; it was a technological extension of psychological models — the imaginary, and the symbolic structure of language.” ~ Robbie Cooper

(Cue in yesterday’s fascinating peek at iconic writers’ thoughts on symbolism.)

So Cooper spent the next three years traveling the world, from France and Germany to Korea and China, to photograph virtual world players, placing their portraits next to their avatars. The results — poignant, powerful, remarkably eye-opening — are gathered in Alter Ego, a fascinating and, at its core, profoundly human glimpse of our quest for selfhood, identity, and social belonging. Micro-essays by each gamer offer a layered look at how we assemble our personas in a way that transcends the physicality of our bodies, our genetics, and our circumstances.

Equal parts provocative and humbling, Alter Ego offers a timely meditation on the construction of our social and personal identities in an age when the line between the real and the virtual is, increasingly, not nearly as simple as the distinction between atoms and bits.

via Flavorwire

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14 DECEMBER, 2011

No Ordinary Genius: BBC Captures Richard Feynman’s Legacy

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Explaining the scientific process with chess, or why childlike wonder is key to getting unstuck in science.

As physicists write another inconclusive chapter in the epic hunt for the “God particle” this week, it’s time to revisit one of the scientists whose work shaped modern physics. Richard Feynman, known as the “Great Explainer,” is one of my big intellectual heroes and a Brain Pickings frequenter — from his timeless insights on beauty, honors, and curiosity to his wonderful recent graphic novel biography, among the best science books of 2011 and a fine addition to our favorite masterpieces of graphic nonfiction.

In 1993, five years after Feynman’s death, BBC set out to capture his spirit and his scientific legacy in a fantastic documentary titled Richard Feynman: No Ordinary Genius, part of their excellent Horizon program, which has also brought us such fascinations as the nature of reality, the age-old tension between science and religion, how music works, and what time really is. The film was subsequently adapted into the book No Ordinary Genius: The Illustrated Richard Feynman, and the documentary is now available on YouTube in its entirety — enjoy.

When Feynman faces a problem, he’s unusually good at going back to being like a child, ignoring what everyone else thinks… He was so unstuck — if something didn’t work, he’d look at it another way.” ~ Marvin Minsky, MIT

At around minute 39, Feynman gives a fantastic analogy-turned-explanation that captures what’s essentially the heart of the scientific process:

In the case of the chess game, the rules become more complicated as you go along, but in the physics, when you discover new things, it looks more simple. It appears, on the whole, to be more complicated because we learn about a greater experience — that is, we learn about more particles and new things — and so the laws look more complicated again. But if you realize all the time, what’s kind of wonderful is as we expand our experience into wilder and wilder regions of experience, every once in a while we have these integrations in which everything is pulled together in a unification, which turns out to be simpler than it looked before.”

Tender and intelligent, the film reveals some of Feynman’s defining qualities: his intense cross-disciplinary curiosity and determination (he taught himself to be a skillful artist, studying drawing like he studied science); his thoughtful, caring character (the anecdote Joan, Feynman’s younger sister, recounts at about 9:04 is just about the most poetic expression of nerd-affection I’ve ever encountered); and, perhaps above all, the remarkable blend of humility and genius that made him able to see error and wrongness as an essential piece of intellectual inquiry and truth itself.

HT @matthiasrascher

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