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Ursula K. Le Guin on the Sacredness of Public Libraries

“Knowledge sets us free, art sets us free. A great library is freedom.”

“If librarians were honest,” Joseph Mills wrote in his delightful poem celebrating libraries, “they would say, No one spends time here without being changed…” For Thoreau, books themselves were also changed and fertilized by their cohabitation, “as if they were making a humus for new literatures to spring in.” “When people don’t have free access to books,” Anne Lamott asserted in contemplating the revolutionary notion of free public libraries, “then communities are like radios without batteries.”

That fertilizing freedom is what Ursula K. Le Guin (b. October 21, 1929) extols in one of the many remarkable pieces in her anthology The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination (public library) — the source of Le Guin’s abiding wisdom on gender, what beauty really means, and the magic of real human conversation.

In a 1997 speech celebrating the renovation of Portland’s Multnomah County Library, Le Guin writes:

A library is a focal point, a sacred place to a community; and its sacredness is its accessibility, its publicness. It’s everybody’s place.

After an affectionate time-travel tour of the formative libraries in her life, Le Guin considers the universal gift of the free public library:

Knowledge sets us free, art sets us free. A great library is freedom.

[…]

Plunging into the ocean of words, roaming in the broad fields of the mind, climbing the mountains of the imagination. Just like the kid in the Carnegie or the student in Widener, that was my freedom, that was my joy. And it still is.

That joy must not be sold. It must not be “privatised,” made into another privilege for the privileged. A public library is a public trust.

And that freedom must not be compromised. It must be available to all who need it, and that’s everyone, when they need it, and that’s always.

Couple this particular fragment of the wholly magnificent The Wave in the Mind — titled after Virginia Woolf’s famous metaphor for writing and consciousness — with a photographic love letter to public libraries, then revisit Le Guin on where ideas come from and the “secret” to great writing.

Images based on photograph of Le Guin by Benjamin Reed

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The Yin-Yang of Fortune and Misfortune: Alan Watts on the Art of Learning Not to Think in Terms of Gain and Loss

“The whole process of nature is an integrated process of immense complexity, and it’s really impossible to tell whether anything that happens in it is good or bad.”

The Yin-Yang of Fortune and Misfortune: Alan Watts on the Art of Learning Not to Think in Terms of Gain and Loss

“The truth is, we know so little about life, we don’t really know what the good news is and what the bad news is,” Kurt Vonnegut observed in discussing Hamlet during his now-legendary lecture on the shapes of stories. But this idea was first articulated by British philosopher and writer Alan Watts (January 6, 1915–November 16, 1973), who began popularizing Eastern philosophy in the West during the 1950s and 1960s. Fusing ancient wisdom with the evolving insights of modern psychology, Watts’s enduring teachings addressed such concerns as how to live with presence, what makes us who we are, the difference between money and wealth, the art of timing, and how to find meaning in meaninglessness.

Alan Watts, early 1970s (Image courtesy of Everett Collection)

Although he wrote beautifully and authored a number of books, Watts was a remarkably charismatic speaker and delivered some of his most compelling ideas in lectures, the best which were eventually published as Eastern Wisdom, Modern Life: Collected Talks 1960–1969 (public library).

In a talk titled “Swimming Headless,” Watts explores the psychological dimensions of Taoist philosophy and its emphasis on cultivating the mental discipline of not categorizing everything into gain and loss. Learning to live in such a way that nothing is experienced as either an advantage or a disadvantage, Watts argues, is the source of enormous empowerment and liberation.

He illustrates this notion with an ancient Chinese parable, brought to life in this lovely animation by Steve Agnos and the Sustainable Human project:

The whole process of nature is an integrated process of immense complexity, and it’s really impossible to tell whether anything that happens in it is good or bad — because you never know what will be the consequence of the misfortune; or, you never know what will be the consequences of good fortune.

In the book adaptation, the parable makes the same point in slightly more refined language:

Once upon a time there was a Chinese farmer whose horse ran away. That evening, all of his neighbors came around to commiserate. They said, “We are so sorry to hear your horse has run away. This is most unfortunate.” The farmer said, “Maybe.” The next day the horse came back bringing seven wild horses with it, and in the evening everybody came back and said, “Oh, isn’t that lucky. What a great turn of events. You now have eight horses!” The farmer again said, “Maybe.” The following day his son tried to break one of the horses, and while riding it, he was thrown and broke his leg. The neighbors then said, “Oh dear, that’s too bad,” and the farmer responded, “Maybe.” The next day the conscription officers came around to conscript people into the army, and they rejected his son because he had a broken leg. Again all the neighbors came around and said, “Isn’t that great!” Again, he said, “Maybe.”

The farmer steadfastly refrained from thinking of things in terms of gain or loss, advantage or disadvantage, because one never knows… In fact we never really know whether an event is fortune or misfortune, we only know our ever-changing reactions to ever-changing events.

Complement Eastern Wisdom, Modern Life with Watts on death, the difference between belief and faith, and what reality really is, then revisit philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti and physicist David Bohm’s immensely stimulating East/West dialogue on love, intelligence, and how to transcend the wall of being.

HT Open Culture

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David Foster Wallace on Why You Should Use a Dictionary, How to Write a Great Opener, and the Measure of Good Writing

“Really good writing [is] able to get across massive amounts of information and various favorable impressions of the communicator with minimal effort on the part of the reader.”

“Readers who want to become writers should read with a dictionary at hand,” Harvard psycholinguist Steven Pinker asserted in his indispensable guide to the art-science of beautiful writing, adding that writers who are “too lazy to crack open a dictionary” are “incurious about the logic and history of the English language” and doom themselves to having “a tin ear for its nuances of meaning and emphasis.” But the most ardent case for using a dictionary came more than a decade earlier from none other than David Foster Wallace.

In late 1999, Wallace wrote a lengthy and laudatory profile of writer and dictionary-maker Bryan A. Garner. A correspondence ensued, which became a friendship, which sprouted a series of conversations about writing and language, eventually published as Quack This Way: David Foster Wallace & Bryan A. Garner Talk Language and Writing (public library) — an unparalleled record of the beloved writer’s relationship with language and with himself, and the source of his ideas on writing, self-improvement, and how we become who we are.

davidfosterwallace

At one point, the conversation turns to the underappreciated usefulness of usage dictionaries. Wallace tells Garner:

I urge my students to get a usage dictionary… To recognize that you need a usage dictionary, you have to be paying a level of attention to your own writing that very few people are doing… A usage dictionary is [like] a linguistic hard drive… For me the big trio is a big dictionary, a usage dictionary, a thesaurus — only because I cannot retain and move nimbly around in enough of the language not to need these extra sources.

As a teacher, about 90% of my job is getting the students to understand why they might need one.

True to his singular brand of intellectual irreverence, Wallace offers a delightfully unusual usage of the usage dictionary:

A usage dictionary is one of the great bathroom books of all time. Because it has the appeal of trivia, the entries are for the most part brief, and you end up within 48 hours — due to that weird psychological effect — actually drawing on exactly what you learned in some weird, coincidental way.

dictionary

The conversation then turns to the structure of a winsome piece of writing:

A good opener, first and foremost, fails to repel… It’s interesting and engaging. It lays out the terms of the argument, and, in my opinion, should also in some way imply the stakes… If one did it deftly, one could in a one-paragraph opening grab the reader, state the terms of the argument, and state the motivation for the argument. I imagine most good argumentative stuff that I’ve read, you could boil that down to the opener.

With an eye to the Aristotelian tenet that a good story has a beginning, a middle, and an ending, Wallace agrees with Garner that “the middle is the biggest puzzle” and considers the perplexity of the middle:

The middle should work… It lays out the argument in steps, not in a robotic way, but in a way that the reader can tell (a) what the distinct steps or premises of the argument are; and (b), this is the tricky one, how they’re connected to each other. So when I teach nonfiction classes, I spend a disproportionate amount of my time teaching the students how to write transitions, even as simple ones as however and moreover between sentences. Because part of their belief that the reader can somehow read their mind is their failure to see that the reader needs help understanding how two sentences are connected to each other — and also transitions between paragraphs.

[…]

An argumentative writer [should] spend one draft on just the freaking argument, ticking it off like a checklist, and then the real writing part would be weaving it and making the transitions between the parts of the argument — and probably never abandoning the opening, never letting the reader forget what the stakes are here… Never letting the reader think that I’ve lapsed into argument for argument’s sake, but that there’s always a larger, overriding purpose.

‘Paper Typewriter’ by Jennifer Collier from Art Made from Books

In how this larger purpose is conveyed, Wallace argues, lies the true measure of good writing:

Reading is a very strange thing. We get talked to about it and talk explicitly about it in first grade and second grade and third grade, and then it all devolves into interpretation. But if you think about what’s going on when you read, you’re processing information at an incredible rate.

One measure of how good the writing is is how little effort it requires for the reader to track what’s going on. For example, I am not an absolute believer in standard punctuation at all times, but one thing that’s often a big shock to my students is that punctuation isn’t merely a matter of pacing or how you would read something out loud. These marks are, in fact, cues to the reader for how very quickly to organize the various phrases and clauses of the sentence so the sentence as a whole makes sense.

[…]

The point where that amount — the amount of time that you’re spending on a sentence, the amount of effort — becomes conscious, when you are conscious that this is hard, is the time when college students’ papers begin getting marked down by the prof.

[…]

One of the things that really good writing does is that it’s able to get across massive amounts of information and various favorable impressions of the communicator with minimal effort on the part of the reader.

That’s why people use terms like flow or effortless to describe writing that they regard as really superb. They’re not saying effortless in terms of it didn’t seem like the writer spent any work. It simply requires no effort to read it — the same way listening to an incredible storyteller talk out loud requires no effort to pay attention. Whereas when you’re bored, you’re conscious of how much effort is required to pay attention.

Complement the altogether wonderful Quack This Way with Wallace on the meaning of life, death and redemption, the perils of ambition, and the greatest definition of leadership, then revisit this growing library of great writers’ advice on the craft.

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