Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

06 NOVEMBER, 2014

Someone Reading a Book is a Sign of Order in the World

By:

“In our marginal existence, what else is there but this voice within us, this great weirdness we are always leaning forward to listen to?”

If you’re lucky, on a few occasions in your lifetime you will come upon an author in whose writing you experience a rare kind of homecoming, a spiritual embrace. For me, such singular homecomings have taken place in the arms of only a handful of writers — to wit, Virginia Woolf, Ursula K. Le Guin, Italo Calvino, Susan Sontag, Rebecca Solnit, Dani Shapiro, Anne Lamott, E.B White, and, most recently, Mary Ruefle.

It is doubly exulting when one of those rare writers finds the words and rhythms with which to convey what it is, exactly, that transpires in one of those rare moments of homecoming — what reading, at its best, does for the human soul. That’s precisely what Ruefle does in the gorgeously titled 2003 piece “Someone Reading a Book is a Sign of Order in the World,” found in the altogether unputdownable Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures (public library).

One of Maurice Sendak's little-known vintage posters celebrating the joy of reading. Click image for more.

Ruefle — a prolific poet and voracious reader herself, having read an estimated 2,400 books in her life — reflects on “the mirrored erotics of this compulsive activity, reading”:

We don’t often watch people very closely when they read, though there are many famous paintings of women reading (none that I know of men) in which a kind of quiet eroticism takes place, like that of nursing. Of course, it is we who are being nursed by the books, and then I think of the reader asleep, the open book on his or her chest.

[…]

We are all one question, and the best answer seems to be love — a connection between things. This arcane bit of knowledge is respoken every day into the ears of readers of great books, and also appears to perpetually slip under a carpet, utterly forgotten.

'A Young Woman Reading' by Gustave Courbet, ca. 1866–1868

In one pause-giving anecdote, Ruefle illustrates the way that reading ignites the miraculous alchemy of associations that is the hallmark of the human mind. She recalls encountering on “page 248″ of W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn an interview with an English farmer who at one point says to Sebald, “I have always kept ducks, even as a child, and the colours of their plumage, in particular the dark green and snow white, seemed to me the only possible answer to the questions that are on my mind.”

Ruefle found it “an odd thing to say,” but made nothing of it, attributing it to the general quality of Sebald’s book as “a long walk of oddities.” But a few hours later, as she was perusing the dictionary,* she remembered the passage with a jolt as she read the multiple definitions of the word speculum — among them, “a medieval compendium of all knowledge” and “a patch of color on the secondary wings of most ducks and some other birds.”

Illustration by Jon Klassen from 'What’s Your Favorite Animal?' Click image for more.

She marvels at the serendipitous alignment of words and worlds:

Did Sebald know that a compendium of all knowledge and the ducks’ plumage were one and the same? Did Abrams? Or was I the only one for whom the duck passage made perfect, original sense? I sat in my chair, shocked. I am not a scholar, but for the imaginative reader there can be discoveries, connections between books, that explode the day and one’s heart and the long years that have led to the moment.

Imagine my own shock, then, as a mere sentence later I came upon a passage that bears a striking resemblance to Alain de Botton’s recent meditation on the value of reading, and predates it by more than a decade. Ruefle:

In one sense, reading is a great waste of time. In another sense, it is a great extension of time, a way for one person to live a thousand and one lives in a single lifespan, to watch the great impersonal universe at work again and again, to watch the great personal psyche spar with it, to suffer affliction and weakness and injury, to die and watch those you love die, until the very dizziness of it all becomes a source of compassion for ourselves, and our language, which we alone created, and without which the letter that slipped under the door could never have been written, or, once in a thousand lives—is that too much to ask?—retrieved, and read.

Then, De Botton:

It looks like it’s wasting time, but literature is actually the ultimate time-saver — because it gives us access to a range of emotions and events that it would take you years, decades, millennia to try to experience directly. Literature is the greatest reality simulator — a machine that puts you through infinitely more situations than you can ever directly witness.

Did De Botton plagiarize the passage, consciously or not, perhaps in a bout of cryptomnesia? Or is this an honest case of the same idea occurring independently to two minds unaware of each other’s existence? Whatever the case, the very ability to ask such unanswerable questions is a gift granted by the mental cross-connections that books alone make possible.

Painting from 'My Favorite Things' by Maira Kalman. Click image for more.

But Ruefle’s most evocative point has to do with reading’s role as a dual gateway to our inner wholeness and our connectedness with the universe:

That is why I read: I want everything to be okay. That’s why I read when I was a lonely kid and that’s why I read now that I’m a scared adult. It’s a sincere desire, but a sincere desire always complicates things — the universe has a peculiar reaction to our sincere desires. Still, I believe the planet on the table, even when wounded and imperfect, fragmented and deprived, is worthy of being called whole. Our minds and the universe — what else is there? Margaret Mead described intellectuals as those who are bored when they don’t have the chance to talk interestingly enough. Now a book will talk interestingly to you. George Steiner describes the intellectual as one who can’t read without a pencil in her hand. One who wants to talk back to the book, not take notes but make them: one who might write, “The giraffe speaks!” in the margin. In our marginal existence, what else is there but this voice within us, this great weirdness we are always leaning forward to listen to?

From cover to cover, Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures is the kind of book that beckons the pencil to its margins. Complement it with Rebecca Solnit on the shared intimacy of reading and writing, then revisit Kafka — whom Ruefle quotes in the same essay — on what books do for the human spirit.

* Ruefle isn’t merely the type of person who reads the dictionary, but also the type who spends years planning a theoretical course called “Footnotes,” which would require students to read every book mentioned in the footnotes of a definitive text.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

06 NOVEMBER, 2014

Bill Nye Reads a Brilliant, Creationism-Busting Passage from His New Book on Evolution

By:

An intelligent antidote to propaganda’s chronic line of unreasonable reasoning.

“Propositions that are untestable, unfalsifiable are not worth much,” Carl Sagan wrote in his now-legendary Baloney Detection Kit for critical thinking. Since 1993, former mechanical engineer turned actor Bill Nye “The Science Guy” — for who Sagan was a personal hero — has been testing and demonstrating the pillars of science, from the everyday to the existential, for kids and grownups alike as a television host, comedian, writer, and one of the most important science educators of our time. In Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation (public library | IndieBound), Nye sets out to undo the immeasurable cultural damage done by anti-science propaganda by exploring why evolution is not only one of the most important ideas in the history of science but also the most meaningful creation story humanity has ever known.

Nye writes in the opening chapter:

Once you become aware — once you see how evolution works — so many familiar aspects of the world take on new significance. The affectionate nuzzling of a dog, the annoying bite of a mosquito, the annual flu shot: All are direct consequences of evolution. As you read this book, I hope you will also come away with a deeper appreciation for the universe and our place within it. We are the results of billions of years of cosmic events that led to the cozy, habitable planet we live on.

But the capacity for such appreciation in science requires the same thing that Oscar Wilde believed was necessary for appreciating art — a “temperament of receptivity.” Nothing stifles that capacity, especially in a young mind only beginning to learn the tools of understanding, more surely than dogma. In one particularly punchy passage, which he read on a recent episode of The New York Times’ Science Times podcast in his characteristic animated style, Nye addresses the creationist reader directly with equal parts humor and intellectual rigor:

But for certain people who hold a creationist point of view, life’s common chemistry paints a completely different picture. They claim it indicates that we are all the product of a designer who made everything according to the same plan, all at once.

That line of reasoning also leads to questions — but they’re the exasperating kind. If there was a designer, why did he or she or it create all those fossils of things that aren’t living anymore? Why did the designer put all these chemical substitutions of radioactive elements in with nonradioactive elements? Why did a designer program in this continual change that we observe in the fossil record, if he or she assembled the whole system at once? In short, why mess around with all this messiness? If you’re a creationist reading this, and you want to remark something like, “Well, that’s the way he did it,” I’ll tell you right back, that is just not reasonable, nor is it satisfactory. If we were playing on a team right now, I’d say, “Get your head in the game.”

Illustration from ‘Evolution: A Coloring Book’ by Annu Kilpeläinen. Click image for more. 

 

In the book itself, he goes on to write:

Another thing: If there were a designer, I’d expect some better results. I’d expect no common cold viruses, for example. Or, if viruses are an unavoidable or accidental consequence of a designer designing with DNA molecules, I would hope that we’d be immune to those accidental viruses. If the argument is, “Well, that was all part of the plan,” then I have to ask: How can you take the lack of evidence of a plan as evidence of a plan? That makes no sense.

Undeniable is a cultural necessity. Complement it with Neil deGrasse Tyson on why intelligent design is a philosophy of ignorance and Baba Brinkman’s rap guide to evolution, then treat your (inner) child to this wonderful coloring book about evolution.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.




You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.




Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

06 NOVEMBER, 2014

The Language of Lying: Animated Primer on How to Detect Deception

By:

The four most reliable telltale signs of the 10 to 200 lies we tell and are told each day.

Our yearning to discern deception so that we can protect ourselves from abuse, is ancient and almost primal — a marketable commodity for mystics and media manipulators alike. In one of the best explorations of the subject, Sam Harris defined lying as “both a failure of understanding and an unwillingness to be understood.” Susan Sontag wrote in her diary that “ordinary language is an accretion of lies.” But language itself, it turns out, is a remarkable lie-detector — the closest we can get to peering into another’s mind to understand motive and recognize deception.

From Noah Zandan and TED Ed comes this revelatory short animation on how to spot a liar, using communications science and linguistic text analysis to explore the four most common patterns in the subconscious language of deception.

  1. Liars reference themselves less when making deceptive statements. They write or talk more about others, often using the third person to distance and disassociate themselves from their life.
  2. Liars tend to be more negative because, on a subconscious level, they feel guilty about lying.
  3. Liars typically explain events in simple terms, since our brains struggle to build a complex lie. Judgment and evaluation are complex things for our brains to compute.
  4. Even though liars keep descriptions simple, they tend to use longer and more convoluted sentence structure, inserting unnecessary words and irrelevant but factual-sounding details in order to pad the lie.

Much of Zandan’s narrative calls to mind the work of Pamela Meyer, author of Liespotting: Proven Techniques to Detect Deception (public library), which examines truth-telling and its opposite through the trifecta of facial expression decoding, interrogation training, and behavioral psychology research. In her own 2011 TED talk, Meyer dives deeper into the tell-tale signs of lying:

On a given day, studies show that you may be lied to anywhere from 10 to 200 times.

[…]

Lying is complex. It’s woven into the fabric of our daily and our business lives. We’re deeply ambivalent about the truth. We parse it out on an as-needed basis, sometimes for very good reasons, other times just because we don’t understand the gaps in our lives… We’re against lying, but we’re covertly for it in ways that our society has sanctioned for centuries and centuries and centuries. It’s as old as breathing. It’s part of our culture, it’s part of our history. Think Dante, Shakespeare, the Bible, News of the World.

[…]

When you combine the science of recognizing deception with the art of looking, listening, you exempt yourself from collaborating in a lie. You start up that path of being just a little bit more explicit, because you signal to everyone around you, you say, “Hey, my world, our world, it’s going to be an honest one. My world is going to be one where truth is strengthened and falsehood is recognized and marginalized.” And when you do that, the ground around you starts to shift just a little bit.

In Liespotting, Meyer goes on to explore the evolutionary value of lying, the single most telling facial expression during deception, and the five-step method that most reliably flags lies in interviews, dates, negotiations, and various other interpersonal exchanges. Couple it with Sam Harris on lying then, for a complementary counterpoint, see David DeSteno’s remarkable work on the psychology of trust.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.