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Posts Tagged ‘books’

30 JULY, 2012

Henry Miller on Reading, Influence, and What’s Wrong with Education

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“Our whole theory of education is based on the absurd notion that we must learn to swim on land before tackling the water. It applies to the pursuit of the arts as well as to the pursuit of knowledge.”

Henry Miller was a notoriously disciplined writer. It comes as no surprise, then — given the relationship between reading and writing, and the importance of learning the parallel skills of both — that he was also a voracious reader, unafraid to acknowledge the borrowing and repurposing of ideas. In The Books in My Life (public library; public domain), originally published in 1952, he offers a singular lens on his approach to reading, using that as a vehicle for a larger meditation on our culture’s relationship not just with books, but with knowledge itself.

Miller’s insights touch on modern concerns about the brokenness of industrialized education and echo Abraham Flexner’s 1939 essay on the usefulness of useless knowledge:

In this age, which believes that there is a short cut to everything, the greatest lesson to be learned is that the most difficult way is, in the long run, the easiest. All that is set forth in books, all that seems so terribly vital and significant, is but an iota of that from which it stems and which it is within everyone’s power to tap. Our whole theory of education is based on the absurd notion that we must learn to swim on land before tackling the water. It applies to the pursuit of the arts as well as to the pursuit of knowledge. Men are still being taught to create by studying other men’s works or by making plans and sketches never intended to materialize. The art of writing is taught in the classroom instead of in the thick of life. Students are still being handed models which are supposed to fit all temperaments, all kinds of intelligence. No wonder we produce better engineers than writers, better industrial experts than painters.

My encounters with books I regard very much as my encounters with other phenomena of life or thought. All encounters are configurate, not isolate. In this sense, and in this sense only, books are as much a part of life as trees, stars or dung. I have no reverence for them per se. Nor do I put authors in any special, privileged category. They are like other men, no better, no worse. They exploit the powers given them, just as any other order of human being. If I defend them now and then — as a class — it is because I believe that, in our society at least, they have never achieved the status and the consideration they merit. The great ones, especially, have almost always been treated as scapegoats.

But Miller’s central concern is a kind of anatomy of influence, a hope to reverse-engineer the alchemy of where a writer’s good ideas come from by honoring his sources of creative spark:

The principal aim underlying this work is to render homage where homage is due, a task which I know beforehand is impossible of accomplishment. Were I to do it properly, I would have to get down on my knees and thank each blade of grass for rearing its head. What chiefly motivates me in this vain task is the fact that in general we know all too little about the influences which shape a writer’s life and work. The critic, in his pompous conceit and arrogance, distorts the true picture beyond all recognition. The author, however truthful he may think himself to be, inevitably disguises the picture. The psychologist, with his single-track view of things, only deepens the blur. As author, I do not think myself an exception to the rule. I, too, am guilty of altering, distorting and disguising the facts — if ‘facts’ there be. My conscious effort, however, has been — perhaps to a fault– in the opposite direction. I am on the side of revelation, if not always on the side of beauty, truth, wisdom, harmony and ever-evolving perfection. In this work I am throwing out fresh data, to be judged and analyzed, or accepted and enjoyed for enjoyment’s sake. Naturally I cannot write about all the books, or even all the significant ones, which I have read in the course of my life. But I do intend to go on writing about books and authors until I have exhausted the importance (for me) of this domain of reality.

To have undertaken the thankless task of listing all the books I can recall ever reading gives me extreme pleasure and satisfaction. I know of no author who has been mad enough to attempt this. Perhaps my list will give rise to more confusion — but its purpose is not that. Those who know how to read a man know how to read his books.

(Learn how to read Carl Sagan and Alan Turing through their reading lists.)

In the preface, reflecting upon the experience of putting his list together, Miller echoes previous considerations of non-reading as an intellectual choice on par with reading itself:

One of the results of this self-examination — for that is what the writing of this book amounts to — is the confirmed belief that one should read less and less, not more and more…. I have not read nearly as much as the scholar, the bookworm, or even the ‘well-educated’ man — yet I have undoubtedly read a hundred times more than I should have read for my own good. Only one out of five in America, it is said, are readers of ‘books.’ But even this small number read far too much. Scarcely any one lives wisely or fully.

Reiterating his own insights on originality and offering a complement to Susan Sontag’s advocacy of direct experience over “ideas,” he continues:

The vast body of literature, in every domain, is composed of hand-me-down ideas. The question — never resolved, alas! — is to what extent it would be efficacious to curtail the overwhelming supply of cheap fodder. One thing is certain today — the illiterate are definitely not the least intelligent among us. If it be knowledge or wisdom one is seeking, then one had better go direct to the source. And the source is not the scholar or philosopher, not the master, saint, or teacher, but life itself — direct experience of life. The same is true for art. Here, too, we can dispense with ‘the masters.’

The Books in My Life goes on to explore the fabric of Miller’s intellectual life, woven of a broader discourse on creativity and knowledge. Six decades after its publication, it remains equal parts timeless and timely.

Maria Bustillos

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30 JULY, 2012

John Updike on the Universe and Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing

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“The mystery of being is a permanent mystery, at least given the present state of the human brain.”

“What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?,” wondered Stephen Hawking in A Brief History of Time. “Why does the universe go through all the bother of existing?”

This inquiry has long occupied scientists, philosophers, and deep thinkers alike, culminating in the most fundamental question of why there is something rather than nothing. That, in fact, is the epicenter of intellectual restlessness that Jim Holt sets out to resolve in Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story (public library). Seeking to tease apart the most central existential question of all — why there is a world, rather than nothingness, a question he says is “so profound that it would occur only to a metaphysician, yet so simple it would occur only to a child” — Holt pores through millennia of science and theology, theory by theory, to question our most basic assumptions about the world, reality, and the nature of fact itself, with equal parts intelligence, irreverence, and insight.

Reflecting on his many conversations with philosophers, theologians, particle physicists, cosmologists, mystics, and writers, Holt puts things in perspective:

When you listen to such thinkers feel their way around the question of why there is a world at all, you begin to realize that your own thoughts on the matter are not quite so nugatory as you had imagined. No one can confidently claim intellectual superiority in the face of the mystery of existence. For, as William James observed, ‘All of us are beggars here.’

And while the book is remarkable in its entirety — take a closer look with Kathryn Schulz’s exquisite review for New York Magazine — one of Holt’s most fascinating conversations is with someone one wouldn’t immediately peg as an expert on cosmogony: novelist John Updike, who seems to share in Isaac Asimov’s famous contention that “the most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious.”

[T]he laws amount to a funny way of saying, ‘Nothing equals something,'” Updike said, bursting into laughter. “QED! One opinion I’ve encountered is that, since getting from nothing to something involves time, and time didn’t exist before there was something, the whole question is a meaningless one that we should stop asking ourselves. It’s beyond our intellectual limits as a species. Put yourself into the position of a dog. A dog is responsive, shows intuition, looks at us with eyes behind which there is intelligence of a sort, and yet a dog must not understand most of the things it sees people doing. It must have no idea how they invented, say, the internal-combustion engine. So maybe what we need to do is imagine that we’re dogs and that there are realms that go beyond our understanding. I’m not sure I buy that view, but it is a way of saying that the mystery of being is a permanent mystery, at least given the present state of the human brain. I have trouble even believing—and this will offend you—the standard scientific explanation of how the universe rapidly grew from nearly nothing. Just think of it. The notion that this planet and all the stars we see, and many thousands of times more than those we see — that all this was once bounded in a point with the size of, what, a period or a grape? How, I ask myself, could that possibly be? And, that said, I sort of move on.

Taking a jab at the “beautiful mathematics” of string theory, Updike echoes the landmark conversation between Einstein and Indian philosopher Tagore, exclaiming:

Beautiful in a vacuum! What’s beauty if it’s not, in the end, true? Beauty is truth, and truth is beauty.

Holt invites Updike to reconcile the “brute fact theory” of science and the “God theory” of religion:

He was silent again for a moment, then continued. “Some scientists who are believers, like Freeman Dyson, have actually tackled the ultimate end of the universe. They’ve tried to describe a universe where entropy is almost total and individual particles are separated by distances that are greater than the dimensions of the present observable universe … an unthinkably dreary and pointless vacuum. I admire their scientific imagination, but I just can’t make myself go there. And a space like that is the space in which God existed and nothing else. Could God then have suffered boredom to the point that he made the universe? That makes reality seem almost a piece of light verse.”

What a lovely conceit! Reality is not a “blot on nothingness,” as Updike’s character Henry Bech had once, in a bilious moment, decided. It is a piece of light verse.

The rest of Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story is just as stirringly, stimulatingly uncomfortable — read at your own riveting risk.

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27 JULY, 2012

Marilyn Monroe’s Unpublished Poems: The Complex Private Person Behind the Public Persona

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“Only parts of us will ever touch only parts of others.”

Did you ever begin Ulysses? Did you ever finish it? Marilyn Monroe did both. She took great pains to be photographed reading or holding a book — insistence born not out of vain affectation but of a genuine love of literature. Her personal library contained four hundred books, including classics like Dostoyevsky and Milton, and modern staples like Hemingway and Kerouac. While she wasn’t shooting, she was taking literature and history night classes at UCLA. And yet, the public image of a breezy, bubbly blonde endures as a caricature of Monroe’s character, standing in stark contrast with whatever deep-seated demons led her to take her own life.

But her private poetry — fragmentary, poem-like texts scribbled in notebooks and on loose-leaf paper, published for the first time in Fragments: Poems, Intimate Notes, Letters (public library) — reveals a complex, sensitive being who peered deeply into her own psyche and thought intensely about the world and other people. What these texts bespeak, above all, is the tragic disconnect between a highly visible public persona and a highly vulnerable private person, misunderstood by the world, longing to be truly seen.

Only parts of us will ever
touch only parts of others —
one’s own truth is just that really — one’s own truth.
We can only share the part that is understood by within another’s knowing acceptable to
the other — therefore
so one
is for most part alone.
As it is meant to be in
evidently in nature — at best though perhaps it could make
our understanding seek
another’s loneliness out.

Life —
I am of both of your directions
Life
Somehow remaining hanging downward
the most
but strong as a cobweb in the
wind — I exist more with the cold glistening frost.
But my beaded rays have the colors I’ve
seen in a paintings — ah life they
have cheated you

Oh damn I wish that I were
dead — absolutely nonexistent —
gone away from here — from
everywhere but how would I do it
There is always bridges — the Brooklyn
bridge
– no not the Brooklyn Bridge
because
But I love that bridge (everything is beautiful from there and the air is so clean) walking it seems
peaceful there even with all those
cars going crazy underneath. So
it would have to be some other bridge
an ugly one and with no view — except
I particularly like in particular all bridges — there’s some-
thing about them and besides these I’ve
never seen an ugly bridge

Stones on the walk
every color there is
I stare down at you
like these the a horizon —
the space / the air is between us beckoning
and I am many stories besides up
my feet are frightened
from my as I grasp for towards you

Beyond her poems, the rest of Monroe’s intimate thoughts collected in Fragments are equally soul-stirring. Writing in her famous Record notebook in 1955, she echoes Kerouac’s famous line, “No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge”:

feel what I feel
within myself — that is trying to
become aware of it
also what I feel in others
not being ashamed of my feeling, thoughts — or ideas

realize the thing that
they are –

In her 1955-1956 Italian diary engraved in green, she writes:

I’m finding that sincerity
and trying to be as simple or direct as (possible) I’d like
is often taken for sheer stupidity
but since it is not a sincere world —
it’s very probable that being sincere is stupid.
One probably is stupid to
be sincere since it’s in this world
and no other world that we know
for sure we exist — meaning that —
(since reality exists it should be must be dealt should be met and dealt with)
since there is reality to deal with

In 1956, Monroe traveled to London to shoot The Prince and the Showgirl. She stayed at the Parkside House, a luxurious manor outside the city, and used the hotel stationery for her thoughts:

To have your heart is
the only completely happy proud possession thing (that ever belonged
to me) I’ve ever possessed so

I guess I have always been
deeply terrified at to really be someone’s
wife
since I know from life
one cannot love another,
ever, really

Some of her undated notes live between the discipline of the to-do list and the expansive contemplation of philosophy:

for life
It is rather a determination not to be overwhelmed

for work
The truth can only be recalled, never invented

Tender, tortured, thoughtful, the texts in Fragments hint at what Brooklyn-based novelist Arthur Miller, whom Monroe eventually married, must have meant when he said that she “had the instinct and reflexes of the poet, but she lacked the control.”

Images courtesy of FSG // thanks, Sean

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