A Library Down the Road

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The Verseghy Ferenc Public Library, just a block away from school, has become one of my favorite places in Szolnok. It brings back library memories but also takes me into new thoughts and the Hungarian language. I have been there many times this year, for poetry and prose readings and for my own book event. I love the luminous room where the readings are held.

Yesterday afternoon I went to hear Levente Csender read from his work and speak with Gyula Jenei. A week from tomorrow, on April 13, I will return from Budapest in time to attend the evening part of a day of literary events: a reading by László Darvasi and, after that, a performance by the Varga Katalin Gimnázium Drama Club (Varga Diákszínpad) of a play written by one of the troupe’s own members, Kata Bajnai.

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This is just the beginning; I look forward to many more events and quiet hours. In June, at the library, my tenth-grade students will perform scenes from Hamlet; before then, I hope to get a library card. Yes, a library card is essential–but so far, I haven’t had much reason to take out books, since I read so slowly in Hungarian and have so many books waiting on my shelf.

My life has held many libraries. In early childhood, in Amherst, Massachusetts, I often went to the Jones library; at the time, they catalogued and displayed a little book that I wrote (with pages stapled together) about a rainbow. At the Forbes Library in Northampton, there were weekly screenings of classic cartoons (Donald Duck, etc.); I used to go and laugh. In high school, I loved the school library with its spiral staircase between the two levels. Later on, in college, graduate school, and in between, I worked at the Yale library and did research there; when I later returned to New Haven to write Republic of Noise, I walked to the library almost every day. Other libraries (such as the New York Public Library and the Berkeley library) have also been large in my life. But the Verseghy Library in Szolnok stands out among the libraries I have known. Here I can listen to Hungarian literature–taking in as much as I can, striving to understand more, saying hello to a few people afterward, and leaving with a new book or two in hand and the evening’s language in my mind.

One day, when my Hungarian is much stronger, I will remember these library days and what they held. I will come back to the works I first met there, remembering how they sounded the first time. I hunger for that return, maybe because I will understand much more by then, or maybe because I will get to look back on these bright, dear days.

P.S. I heartily recommend Bob Shepherd’s piece “The Limits of Learning.”

A Way of Hearing the World

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Isn’t reading literature in the original one of the fundamental reasons for learning a language–and not just a side benefit or frill? Isn’t reading Shakespeare one of the great rewards of learning English? You can’t come close to Shakespeare in a translation, though some are of exceptional quality, or in “Shakespeare made easy” editions (which are watered down beyond pity). You have to plunge into Shakespeare’s language, struggle with it a bit, and then start to see it make glorious sense all around you.

Overall, I admire the gimnázium curriculum here in Hungary. What students learn is valuable not only for their future careers, but for independent thought and life. Literature is central to their learning; they read poems, novels, stories, and more (in Hungarian). They also learn math and sciences (to advanced levels), history (in depth and detail), grammar, technology, languages, arts, and physical education. My two criticisms are (a) that the curriculum is crammed, with little or no flexibility or choice, so that students have no time to absorb what they are learning; and (b) that in the language courses, literature is treated as an extra, something the teacher may add to the lessons if time and inclination permit. (My school has been very supportive of my Shakespeare projects–but still, in relation to the official curriculum, they are something added on.) Language instruction–and all the textbooks I have seen–focus on grammar, vocabulary, and conversation on everyday topics (health, food, family, nature, school, the environment, technology, etc.), which repeat and repeat, at increasingly advanced levels. All of this is good and important–but language instruction without literature is like music lessons without music. I am not the only one who brings literature into class–many teachers do–but still, it may seem an appendage, not an internal organ.

I have sometimes been asked why I am having students read Shakespeare in the original, when they will not need to use Shakespeare’s language later in their lives. My response: they will use it! They will recognize words, phrases, quotes, allusions all around them; they will gain a way of hearing the world; and they can return to the plays and poems throughout their lives.

But to the point: this year, the tenth-grade students (who last year adored A Midsummer Night’s Dream) are getting a little restless with Hamlet, or many are. The reasons are understandable: we read only in class (since the books stay at school, and I am reluctant to add to their already hefty homework); we meet only twice a week, and have not always devoted both sessions to Hamlet; there have been various interruptions and absences, so many students have missed at least one key scene of the play; it’s longer and more difficult than Midsummer; and in my desire to continue onward through the play (so that we can later go back and focus on certain scenes), I have not explained certain passages as well as I could. But we are close to the end; and I am confident that when we go back, reread, and enact particular scenes, the experience will be different.

Also, they have fond memories of Midsummer–and this is a very different sort of work. Comparing the first to the second, they may well feel some disappointment at first (though some have said that they find Hamlet more interesting). Last year their readings and performances were joyous and funny, and here a different mood sets in, though there is plenty of humor in Hamlet too.

Why Hamlet, out of all of Shakespeare’s plays? Well, for one thing, Hamlet is a play of the mind; it takes us into thinking itself. It is also full of play and trickery; the play itself is full of plays, not only the play within the play, but other enactments too–so that we are not always sure whether Hamlet is speaking his thoughts or acting for a perceived audience. Also, there is the question of metamorphosis: what must happen to Hamlet, how must he change, to do what he has set out to do? And the question of “minor” and “major” characters: might Polonius and Laertes be more important than they seem? The whole play has to do with “seeming” and “being”–so that when Hamlet first replies to his mother (in Act 1, Scene 2), his words, in a sense, introduce the play:

Seems, madam! nay it is; I know not ‘seems.’
‘Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected ‘havior of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,
That can denote me truly: these indeed seem,
For they are actions that a man might play:
But I have that within which passeth show;
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.

And there you have the beauty of Hamlet: despite all the changing appearances and illusions, despite all the plots and tricks, there is an integrity, something that cannot be reduced to “just” this or that. It can only be revealed, though, through the illusions. We see Hamlet playing with Polonius here (in Act 3, Scene 2):

LORD POLONIUS
My lord, the queen would speak with you, and presently.
HAMLET
Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a camel?
LORD POLONIUS
By the mass, and ’tis like a camel, indeed.
HAMLET
Methinks it is like a weasel.
LORD POLONIUS
It is backed like a weasel.
HAMLET
Or like a whale?
LORD POLONIUS
Very like a whale.
HAMLET
Then I will come to my mother by and by. [Aside.] They fool me to the top of my bent. I will come by and by.
I will say so.
HAMLET
By and by is easily said.

Here Hamlet tests Polonius (craftily) to see whether he will continue to agree with him. But Polonius’s continued agreement reveals to Hamlet that he himself is being played with, in a more serious manner–that is, that Polonius has made some plan with the king and queen (or a larger “they”). So the play reveals the play–and Hamlet speaks through it all: “They fool me to the top of my bent,” suggesting that even his outwitting of Polonius may be partly an illusion, as there may be something beyond Polonius that he cannot outwit.

In some ways Hamlet cannot be a group experience. Last year, a few students took strongly to the play, not together but alone, and their responses set the tone for classes. I see this happening this year as well, but it has yet to come through. I believe that this will be worthwhile for everyone, not only now, but later. But to make it worthwhile, I have to think more about the scenes that we will study closely: how to interpret them, stage them, “character” them. Then, I think, good memory will be built.

Image credit: M. C. Escher, Metamorphosis I (1937 woodcut printed on two sheets).

I made a few additions to this piece after posting it.

A Similar Gaze

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Yesterday I received a letter from a stranger (copied here with permission):

Dear Ms. Senechal,

I fortuitously discovered your work and simply adore your thinking, your whole orientation towards education, your perceptions about culture could not be more nuanced, intelligent, and deeply inspiring! I am writing to thank you for your work and also to ask you if you could offer some sort of reading list that might help a reader develop a similar gaze. I love your counter-culture thinking, but it is not dismissive and hostile, but rather critical and informed. You tight-rope walk a very subtle line, and I really appreciate it. Most academic writing is AWFUL to read—-horrid prose, jargons, and not very impressive ideas. Your work is a breath of fresh air, and I would love to read others like you and those who have shaped your thinking.

I thought of writing a response here, because this gives me a chance to recognize some of the writers who have influenced my thinking. But when I started assemble it in my mind, I became overwhelmed by the task. First of all, my thinking is continually changing; I expect the next book to differ from my latest one, and I rethink things day by day.

I suppose the letter-writer was referring to nonfiction, but my greatest influences have been poetry, music, and certain kinds of fiction–as well as nonfiction that has been influenced by these. I am drawn to those writers who have an ear for language–who hear the overtones and undertones of words, who know how to set words to rhythm, who set and break patterns. I love Aeschylus and Sophocles, the Psalms and Koheleth–but if I start listing names, I won’t end.

Nikolai Gogol: perhaps the writer who influenced me the most overall. His sentences are works of art: building up and breaking down, toying with sounds and meanings, and bursting with comedy and sadness.

I grew up on classical music but love rock too, and folk, and other kinds; music can take the humblest of forms and still shake a life. It depends on subtle things.

Of essayists, I am drawn toward the ruminative and the keen (in combination): Ralph Waldo Emerson, Virginia Woolf, David Bromwich, to name just three.

But as long as I can remember, some of my greatest influences have been the people around me every day: colleagues, students, friends, family, acquaintances. Some of them I admire for their work, character, or both; some challenge me in everyday conversation by putting things in a way that I hadn’t considered before. That’s one reason why I hope to continue teaching as long as I can give it full mind and strength.

I don’t think I have fully answered the question, though. The person who wrote to me found something in my writing that differed from the usual jargon. This difference is still building, but even in its elementary versions, it has come with some risk and pain. It isn’t just that I read particular writers, although I do. It isn’t just that I am inspired by those around me, although I am. It is that I took my own way, more than once, and learned what was there. For instance, in the middle of graduate school I decided that I didn’t want to go into academia–that is, to become a professor. I left graduate school, moved to San Francisco, finished my dissertation a few years later, for its own sake, and received my degree. Many people were initially upset that I had turned away from academia, but I don’t regret the decision; teaching high school gives me a full intellectual life, with freedom to move between subjects (philosophy, literature, language, drama, etc.). I don’t have life answers; I wouldn’t advise anyone to take or avoid my path. Each person faces different dilemmas and conundrums, so any advice must be tentative.

Nor have I attained the writing that I am after. Even with blog posts, I keep looking for the right word, rhythm, or mixture. When I finish writing something more substantial, such as a book, I outgrow it it a little; the mind keeps going past the final draft, and I start tinkering with ideas for the next work, whatever it may be. This is not a “process” (dreary word) but a pursuit of something I can barely see and hear.

Back to the question of things to read: I recommend Emerson’s “Self-Reliance,” Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, and Bromwich’s Moral Imagination. Each of these will lift the thinking; if you take them in slowly, they may exhilarate too. I choose them because I return to them again and again.

 

I revised this piece a few times after posting it. The photo shows part of my bookshelf (and just a fraction of my books, since I was able to bring only a few to Hungary); the record cover at the top is of Art of Flying’s Escort Mission.

 

Ahead and Behind

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Today I leave Dallas for Nashville (a short trip); from this evening until Sunday noon, I will be taking part in the ALSCW conference: presenting two papers, participating in a poetry reading (by ALSCW members, on Friday evening), attending as many other seminars, panels, and readings as possible, talking with colleagues and friends, and taking part in the ALSCW Council meeting. I hope to take some walks in Nashville too. Then, on Sunday evening, I head back to Hungary and should arrive Monday evening, if all goes as scheduled. (I am grateful to the three colleagues who agreed to cover my classes on Monday; to return by Monday, I would have had to skip the Council meeting and possibly more.)

I wrote a sestina yesterday; I may include it in what I read on Friday, or I may choose something shorter. I am reading a new translation as well; more about that in the future!

The book talk and discussion at the Dallas Institute was lively and warm; I am grateful to everyone who worked to put it together and who came out for it. There were over forty people in the audience, and the books almost sold out. But the best part was the combination of planning and spontaneity, familiarity and surprise, content and question.

First Dr. Larry Allums introduced me, then I spoke about the book and read some passages from it, then Dr. Allums and I had a dialogue, and finally I took questions (of which there were many) from the audience. I am delighted that this was the book’s first event; I will try to do something like this in events to come, though I will not be able to replicate it. It was great to be back at the Institute; I look  forward to returning in July.

There are some videos of the evening. Soon I will upload them to my website; for now, you can view them here. (They are numbered 3903, 3904, 3905, and 3906. The first one contains the introductions–Dr. Allums’s introduction and my preliminary remarks; the second, my readings from the book; the third, Dr. Allums’s dialogue with me, and the fourth, the exchange with the audience.)

Yesterday I went back to the Dallas Institute in the lovely rain and met with my colleagues, who took me to dinner at Gloria’s, our favorite Salvadoran/Latin restaurant. Here is the Dallas Institute’s patio just before we left.

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On a sad subject, I will have more to say soon about the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh. Others are already making important arguments: for instance, that this was not simply a deranged act, but an act fueled by social media, a reckless and callous president, and easy access to weapons. Some have been looking specifically at its anti-Semitism; others, at its resemblance to other recent hate crimes in the U.S. and elsewhere. Some are analyzing it from the point of view of psychology, others from a political perspective, others from the perspective of gun control, others from personal pain. I will try something a little different (or maybe not different, since I have not had time to read all the responses). I want to consider what it means to believe one has the right (or even duty) to take another’s life, or the lives of members of a particular group. This is so far from my own understanding of rights and duties that I have to see where the difference lies. I might not arrive at answers, but I hope to raise some questions. Is the idea of liberty–of living the way you like, as long as you do not impinge on others, and protecting others’ right to do likewise–still young in our history and imagination? Does it contradict itself? Is it feasible? Do people support it today?

I will be thinking of this and more as I head to the airport.

Attainment and Transition

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I have been thinking about attainment and transition in writing: how, when you complete a work–a poem, essay, book–and then later, when you publish it, you both reach a point and push beyond it. Sometimes the very act of publishing takes you to a new perspective; if you were to rewrite the work at this point, you might make some changes (or do something different entirely). The proportion of attainment to transition varies from situation to situation; some works are primarily attainments, others transitions or openings. Neither one is superior to the other; the work that reaches finality is not necessarily more perfect or more worthwhile than the one that opens up changes and new considerations. To the contrary: sometimes the more restless work has the greater liveliness.

Regarding this topic, I sense a cultural difference between the U.S. and Hungary. In the U.S. there is great emphasis on treating your published work as final and perfect; who ever goes back and revises a TED talk, for instance? For a work of nonfiction especially, you are supposed to isolate your “talking points” and say them again and again, in interview after interview. It is uncommon to hear someone say, “My thoughts on this subject have changed,” or “I have altered the wording since the book was published.” Yes, you fix mistakes, but you are otherwise expected to stick to your points. With poetry and fiction, the situation is similar: publishers do not typically want to consider works that have appeared before, even if the author has since revised them. (Part of this has to do with copyright law and economy: publishers compete for “first rights.”)

Here in Hungary I sense something different. My impressions are early and incomplete–I have a lot to learn and take in–but so far I see much less emphasis on finality and newness and much more on seeking, rethinking, and reworking. At least this is what I have found so far. Maybe I found it because I was alert to it. It is all too easy to generalize about a country or to mistake one’s early impressions for the whole. Still, the fragments themselves are promising.

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The poet, playwright, screenwriter, and prose author János Térey (whom I heard twice on Thursday) said in an interview in 2016, “Jó társaság átírni mindig verseinket. Úgy fogom fel, hogy ameddig élek, az utolsó kézvonás joga az enyém.” I would translate this approximately as follows: “It is good fellowship to rewrite our poems continually. As I understand it, as long as I live, the right to the last penstroke is mine.” “Kézvonás,” as I understand it, means a pulling of the hand (i.e., with a pen, over paper), so I translated it as “penstroke” (since “handstroke” has a different meaning); another possibility might be “move,” as in a chess move. I am not sure that I translated the first sentence correctly, but if I did, the meaning may be as follows: revision is fellowship (or company, or society) in itself, since it keeps you in dialogue with your work. It also allows for fellowship with others.

Large revisions are not always more important than small ones; sometimes an adjusted line, a single word change along with an altered word order, can recast an entire poem. Why should a person hold back from trying such changes, if they start growing in the mind?

Some might say that if you are allowed to revise a work as many times as you wish, you never have to take responsibility for your words. This would be true, I think, if, after revising, you erased every trace of the previous versions. But if the previous versions still stand, if they remain in published form, you are still responsible for them in some way, perhaps even more than if you did not change them at all. If you think it is wrong to revise published work, then in essence you relinquish it (“it’s done, it’s out there; what can I do but move on?”). But if you continue to revise your work even after publication, then you extend your responsibility; you not only live with your words but continue to work with them.

I consider Mind over Memes (to be released tomorrow) a better book, but also a more transitional one, than Republic of Noise. It brought me to a different place in my thinking and writing. If I were to revise Republic of Noise, I would make some changes but keep most of the text intact. If I were to rework Mind over Memes, it might become an entirely different book–either that, or it would lead to another one. That does not count against it; rather, it’s part of the book’s meaning. It was meant to open up into questions, and it did, for me at least. It remains to be seen what others think of it.

Probably many will see the actual book before I do; my copies have been held up in customs. I hope they arrive soon. Customs here can be tricky; I have yet to receive a scarf (my own scarf, not an ordered item) for which I completed and returned the customs form several weeks ago. The books may take even longer. The ones held up now are my own copies, but I ordered about thirty more copies for book events. I now more fully understand the meaning of “suspense”–not fully, that is, but more fully than before.

 

I took both pictures in Szolnok this past week. The second one reminds me of several lines from a poem; more about that, possibly, another time. Also, I added a paragraph and made a few changes to this piece after posting it.

“Napsugarak zúgása, amit hallok”

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Over a year ago, before coming to Hungary, I began reading, thinking about, and learning Endre Ady poem “Köszönöm, köszönöm, köszönöm.” Last night I woke up in the middle of the night and finished memorizing it at last. It took time in part because of the complex phrases (“Boldog szimatolásaimban, / Gyöngéd simogatásaimban”) and in part because I had to memorize each syllable, since when I began I knew none of the grammar. Last night I realized that I understood its grammar and nearly all of the words; the parts I knew and the parts I hadn’t yet learned came together. But there was another reason, I think, that it came together all of a sudden: yesterday afternoon I attended a lecture on Ady’s poetry by the writer János Térey (poet, playwright, screenwriter, author of prose), who visited our school. The lecture did not touch on this poem; he focused on Ady’s Christmas-related poems, such as “Harang csendül“–but as I listened, I started to put things together in my mind. Even with my limited Hungarian, I came out of the lecture with a different understanding and with new poems I wanted to read (new for me, that is). From there, it took only a few minutes to finish memorizing the poem.

I don’t think there is anything magical about this. Memorizing involves interpretation; to know what comes next in a poem, you must understand its structure, motion, rhythm, tones, meanings; to do that, you must think about each word and the relationships between them. A lecture, by offering an interpretation, gives your mind a working structure; even if it’s on a slightly different topic, it helps you with the structure at hand. If it’s on an interesting subject, by someone with exceptional insight, it does even more. Beyond that, I concentrate so hard when listening to Hungarian that the focus persists afterward. In any case, I now can carry “Köszönöm, köszönöm, köszönöm” and traces of other Ady poems in my mind. It is the third Hungarian poem that I have memorized, and I hope for many more. Each book opens up to more places, and the memorizing is just the beginning.

Memorizing a poem in another language can also open up aspects of one’s own. The Ady poem has the lines “Köszönöm a kétséget, a hitet, / A csókot és a betegséget.” (roughly, “I thank You for the doubt, the belief, / The kisses and the infirmity”). The word “kétség” means “doubt” but could literally be translated as “twoness” or “being of two minds” (since “két” means “two,” and the suffix –ség turns the word into an abstract noun). I began to suspect that “doubt” also had something to do with “two,” and so it does, according to my handiest etymological dictionary at this time. From the Online Etymology Dictionary:

c. 1200, douten, duten, “to dread, fear, be afraid” (a sense now obsolete), from Old French doter“doubt, be doubtful; be afraid,” from Latin dubitare “to doubt, question, hesitate, waver in opinion” (related to dubius “uncertain”), from duo “two” (from PIE root *dwo- “two”), with a sense of “of two minds, undecided between two things.” Compare dubious. Etymologically, “to have to choose between two things.”

I could (and should) have realized this long ago, but learning a poem makes me more alert to such things. Learn a book of such poems inside out, and you come close to learning a language. There will be much more to learn after that, but you will start to hear the language from the inside.

Speaking of books, mine comes out in three days. The Dallas Institute posted a Q&A; another one is coming any day on the Book Culture blog. I will have a reading in Budapest, at Massolit Books & Cafe, on Sunday, November 18; I hope to have one in Szolnok too, possibly at the library, which I visited for the first time yesterday when I went to hear János Térey read from his own work. It’s a beautiful library, and I hope to visit often, whether for events or for reading.

 

I took the photo after a concert in September. Also, I made some additions to this piece after posting it.

Update: Here is a short video of János Térey‘s visit to our school. Thanks to Gyula Jenei for posting the link–and to Gyula and everyone else who made these events possible.

Is one ever too busy to think?

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It happened with the first book too: after everything is off to press, I find some delightful sources that, had I read them earlier, I would have quoted and discussed. That’s the inevitable result of working on a book: it opens up subjects that don’t close up along with your deadlines.

First, in his scathing article “The Naked and the TED,” Evgeny Morozov describes the “takeaway” as “the shrinkage of thought for people too busy to think.” That’s great. My only qualm is that I don’t think people are really too busy to think; rather, they don’t want to think and use the busyness to excuse this. (We all do this with things we don’t want to do.) I’ll get to that in a moment.

Also, Dave Stein’s terrific blog Lex maniac–which examines “expressions that have entered and established themselves in everyday language in the last thirty years”–observes that the takeaway “refers to the main point you want to drive home but shifts the focus to the receiver of the message from that of the sender. The important thing is not what you say, but what your listeners remember.” In other words, a takeaway produces results, or rather, it is the result. It is the mental product that people carry away from a speech, book, advertisement, or other way of conveying something. (I have no excuse for not reading Lex maniac earlier–I was told about it more than once–but now I visit it often.)

Many people, especially in Hungary, have asked me, “What does ‘Take Away the Takeaway’ mean?” (That’s the title of this blog and of the first chapter of Mind over Memes.) I explain that I am not arguing to get rid of takeaways but rather to remove them temporarily to see what lies below them: what uncertainties, questions, subtleties, and extensions. In other words, don’t let the takeaway replace the larger subject. Like the birds in the photo below, look it up and down; examine it from different parts of the crate. (The birds–maybe flycatchers of some kind?–are a little hard to see, but they’re at the edge of the wooden crate in the foreground. One is looking up, the other down.)

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But back to the question of being too busy to think. No one can do everything, but people find ways to make time for the things they really want to do. No matter how busy you are, there are ways to fit things in and cut other things out. Those who say, “I really want to write; I just don’t have time” have chosen to do other things besides write. The same applies to playing an instrument, reading, or any other voluntary, ongoing activity or action. This is true even for people raising children; even in the most hectic years, many parents make (or find, borrow, conjure, steal, or glean) time for writing, music, and other things.

Now, finding the time for something can involve some big choices and even sacrifices. For any serious writing, I need stretches of time. I don’t work well in small snatches here and there, even though those can supplement the larger work. When writing a book, I have needed to take time off from teaching (which meant leaving my job at the time, since there were no sabbaticals or other leaves that accommodated what I wanted to do.) In contrast, I have not been in the routine of practicing cello lately. I do not like “sort of” playing; if I am going to play, I want to practice two hours a day–and that is a big commitment among others. I already have substantial commitments, including musical commitments, in my time outside of work, so I have chosen not to add more. I do want to return to cello–but at a time when I am willing to set other things aside for it. (“You sure seem to have time for your blog,” someone might say. Yes, that’s part of the point; I choose to have time for it.)

The same holds true for thinking. Yes, a day can leave little room for extended thought, but it’s up to an individual whether or not to find the openings. This choice depends on many things. There are temperamental differences: some people feel uncomfortable when sitting with their own thoughts, whereas others feel something missing if they don’t take time for contemplation, analysis, rumination, play. There are also practices, habits, rituals of thinking, which can be built over time; someone unused to wrestling with a geometry problem may find it frustrating at the outset, whereas someone who does it every day may relish it and seek out trickier problems.

For me, different kinds of thinking need different forms and settings; I enjoy thinking during bike rides but do a different kind of thinking when sitting at the computer, and still other kinds when reading a book, listening to music, or writing a poem.

So then, given the voluntary nature of thought, given the possibility of finding time for thought even in a busy schedule, why does there seem to be a growing cultural impatience with thinking? Why is a “thinker” even viewed as a social nuisance, the one who ruins the fun?

I would attribute at least some of this to the rise of “thinking-lite,” a stand-in for independent thought. It’s a way of having your cake and being told you just had broccoli, or quasi-broccoli. Institutions like TED and media such as Twitter give their audience the sensation of learning something new or participating in something smart. They offer some kind of takeaway. That is all very satisfying, until you realize that these nutritional nuggets were often nothing other than candy.

There are exceptions. Here and there, you will find a TED talk that takes the audience into the subtleties of a subject. Stephen Burt’s talk “Why People Need Poetry” does that, a little–though if he had stayed with one poem, he could have done more. It’s a talk about poetry in general; to its great credit, it ends with something other than a takeaway. It invites the audience to look and listen beyond the usual.

So to make more “time” for thought, a society must raise it up as an honorable thing: it must show, through classes, programs, books, and speeches, what it means to work toward greater understanding, to question assumptions, to find clear language, to return to old works and ideas, to gaze into art, to separate the known from the unknown in science, and to bear with not knowing for sure what you will get out of it all.

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I took these photos in Szolnok. On rainy days it almost looks like fall. But here’s a sunny day, below (also in Szolnok, by the Tisza river). Fall is not the takeaway, nor is rain.

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I made a few edits to this piece after posting it.

“God keep me from ever completing anything”

IMG_6426Today we celebrated and lamented the conclusion of the Epic course–and the Political Philosophy course–at the Dallas Institute’s Sue Rose Summer Institute for Teachers. The laments are short-lived, since this work can never be finished. I have more to learn as I reread these texts, teach them again, hear others speak about them, turn them in my mind, and carry them into my life.

Thanks to everyone who made this a soaring and diving three weeks, through the reading, discussion, listening, and more. I have much more to say, but the words are coming too slowly right now. Soon I will write about The Revolt of Job (Jób lázadása), a film I have watched in four successive Epic summers here (in 2012, 2014, 2016, and 2018), and which has become one of my favorite films of any time or place. I look forward to next summer and to the October 30 event.

I took the photo here in Dallas. The post’s title is a quote from Moby-Dick.

Why the “Next Big Idea Club” Is a Bad Idea

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I recently learned that Malcolm Gladwell, Susan Cain, Daniel Pink, and Adam Grant have started a book club called the “Next Big Idea Club,” whose goal is to draw attention to new books that are “Groundbreaking, Science-Based, and Life-Changing (Actionable).” The book selections come with “video e-courses” that “highlight key concepts” (in case readers can’t figure them out for themselves), written course materials, exclusive author interviews, and an invite-only Facebook group.

In other words, the club leaders emphasize books that appear to have not only scientific basis, but clear takeaways–immediate applications to life–and then take the additional step of distilling those takeaways for the readers, thus affirming that the books should be put into action right away rather than thought upon, questioned, disputed.

And there lies about a third of the problem. I have no issue with the idea of a book club, no matter who leads it, when it involves selecting books that one loves (or finds especially interesting) and bringing them to the club members. But books deserve time and rumination; instead of being translated immediately into “actionable” takeaways, they should take up residence in the mind for a while. It is the dialogue (an approximate term) between author and reader that makes for memorable reading. The books that influence me the most have nothing immediately “actionable” about them; rather, they get me to think, they provoke me to return to the pages.

So that’s the first problem: the emphasis on the “actionable.” The second lies in the so-called scientific basis. Some of these books may well have strong scientific grounding. But science involves dogged and keen questioning–so the most scientific books will likely have the most uncertainties. With some exceptions, they will be the ones least conducive to takeaways. For a book to be both scientific and actionable at once, the scientific aspect may have to undergo simplification. The book club leaders, apparently, hasten the process of simplification by handing summaries and key points to the readers. This not only reduces the science itself but discourages scientific thinking.

The third problem lies in the priority given to “groundbreaking” books. We often don’t know right away whether a new book is groundbreaking; it takes time to put it in proper context and observe its influence and effects. Sometimes a seemingly new idea has many unknown antecedents; sometimes a seemingly grand solution fails to pan out. Rather than look for “groundbreaking” books, I would seek books that demonstrate intellect, probing, and wit: books that allow the reader to reconsider previous assumptions without latching on to false certainties.

The book club itself is nothing new; Gladwell appears to have been running it in some form for years. Kathryn Schulz wrote of his “Big Idea Club” in 2011 (in New York Magazine):

Big Idea books have been around for a long time; see The Communist Manifesto. But the Big Idea Book Club … is a recent phenomenon. Its accidental founder and president in apparent perpetuity is Malcolm Gladwell. Its membership, like the membership of most powerful groups, is largely male. Its combined sales are stratospheric; whatever these books are hawking, we can’t stop buying it.

And then, toward the end of the article:

There is no rule, process, peer group, leader, or best seller that can absolve us of the responsibility of thinking our way through life on our own two feet. What irks me most about this infinite parade of gigundo solutions isn’t their glibness or even the borderline theology (of some) and borderline Babbitry (of others) involved in promising audiences easy, happy, profitable ideas. Nope. What irks me is that when you rigidly apply grand theories to everybody, sooner or later everybody feels like nobody, whether you’re in Communist Belgrade or the local DMV. There is a reason we call such systems soul-crushing: They ignore or annihilate individual difference and inner life.

There you have it. Some ideas are big by nature, some medium-sized, some small. It would be folly to avoid an idea on account of its size. But it is dangerous to pursue or herald an idea because it is big. The bigness should give some pause. Do we really have room in this idea? Does it hold enough truth? Or has it been swept in, like so many others, only to drift out again later?

Some of the club’s selections may well be worth reading. Of the twenty that Adam Grant listed for 2018, I would be most likely to read Melissa Dahl’s Cringeworthy. I probably would not get to it until 2020 or later; I have many books waiting and generally like to read slowly. In any case, if I do read this book, it will be to consider the ideas and stories, not to apply them directly to my life. In books, it is the indirect applications–the use of words, the gestures of wisdom–that influence my life the most. The big idea? I take it in stride.

I have criticized the American emphasis on the Big Idea many times, in many places. (See, for instance, “The Folly of the Big Idea: How a Liberal Arts Education Puts Fads in Perspective,” American Educator, Winter 2012-2013). But I now come upon a new point: no matter what the size of an idea, I expect to be able to consider it in my own terms, on my own time–and not to accept someone else’s summaries or rush it into action.

Well, then, don’t join the club! someone might retort. No one is making you join. True, true, but that’s a moot point; I don’t join book clubs in general. Through my teaching, I have many opportunities to read with others; outside of work and projects, my time for reading is so scarce that I like to choose books on my own, often old books that I have read years ago or that I have been wanting to read for years. No, my own non-membership is not the point here. Rather, I argue and long for a different kind of reading: a kind that allows for liberty of thought, judges an idea by its merits, delights in verbal courage, and suspends summary and action.

I took the photo in Szeged in May.

I made a few edits to this piece after posting it.

Is There a Human Project?

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It is the season of cherries and ice cream, of ducklings and Scarce Copper butterflies (I think that’s the type in the picture above), of wrapping up the school year and saying goodbye for the summer. Also, the book is almost in press; the last corrections have been made, and I must now think about the release in the fall. While doing this, I find myself questioning certain phrases in the book. At one point I mention the human project. Is there a human project? Or is this yet another phrase that has lost meaning over time?

It exists but abounds with contradictions, oppositions, anomalies, impossibilities. Drawing partially on George Kateb’s Human Dignity, I would define the human project, in part, as our ongoing assumption (and abdication) of responsibility as stewards of nature, including our own. Humans alone have the capacity to act as stewards–or not. Acting as steward involves recognizing what one has done, or can do, to help or harm oneself and others–and who these others are, and why it matters. In this recognition, humans have advanced somewhat, in some ways, over time. Certain things that we recognize as wrong, such as slavery, were accepted not long ago.

Last week I introduced my eleventh-grade students to the song “Amazing Grace,” which a few already knew. I thought it was important for American civilization, especially since we were now touching on religion. I did not know the origins of the song (having missed the Broadway musical and the movie and forgotten a good bit of history); when I read about it, I heard it in a new way.

It was composed by the English Anglican minister John Newton (1725-1807), who, prior to his Christian conversion, had been forced into the slave trade. He had rebelled so often aboard the ships–not on behalf of the slaves, but on his own behalf–that he had undergone lashings, demotions, and finally slavery, when the crew left him in West Africa with a slave dealer. He was finally rescued and brought back to England; during the voyage, he had a spiritual conversion. Slowly, over time, this conversion brought him to abhor the slave trade. This did not happen linearly; he returned to the slave trade, fell ill, and underwent a new conversion. He continued in the trade a few more years, and then in 1754 renounced it completely.

His tract Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade, written in 1788, thirty-four years after he abandoned the business, repudiates the enslavement and trafficking of humans. It begins:

The nature and effects of that unhappy and disgraceful branch of commerce, which has long been maintained on the Coast of Africa, with the sole, and professed design of purchasing our fellow-creatures, in order to supply our West-India islands and the American colonies, when they were ours, with Slaves; is now generally understood. So much light has been thrown upon the subject, by many able pens; and so many respectable persons have already engaged to use their utmost influence, for the suppression of a traffic, which contradicts the feelings of humanity; that it is hoped, this stain of our National character will soon be wiped out.

If I attempt, after what has been done, to throw my mite into the public stock of information, it is less from an apprehension that my interference is necessary, than from a conviction that silence, at such a time, and on such an occasion, would, in me, be criminal. If my testimony should not be necessary, or serviceable, yet, perhaps, I am bound, in conscience, to take shame to myself by a public confession, which, however sincere, comes too late to prevent, or repair, the misery and mischief to which I have, formerly, been accessary.

I hope it will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was, once, an active instrument, in a business at which my heart now shudders.

Hearing those undertones in “Amazing Grace” (although the hymn preceded the tract by two decades or so), I understand the song not as a paean to the born-again experience but as the author’s recognition of profound error. To see that one has been terribly wrong and to change one’s life accordingly: this allows for something of a human project. For by writing what he saw and learned, Newton allowed others to see it too.

I don’t want to be glib about this. Looking at the picture below, I would say that ducks do a bit better with their projects than humans; they lead their little ones, which grow up to have little ones of their own. But ducks also kill ducklings that they do not recognize–and suffer no qualms of conscience, as far as I know. It is not that we humans do so well with our conscience–we continue to do things that we repudiate or simply fail to question–but our conscience also matures, not only through experience in the world, but through encounters with books, speeches, music, plays. In listening to something, we come to take ourselves in measure. Or at least we may. To the extent that we do, we participate in a human project.

I ask myself why I didn’t notice the Broadway musical Amazing Grace, which would have taught me something, even fleetingly, about John Newton. I think I unthinkingly ignored it because of the title. I had heard the song sung mockingly so many times that I had absorbed the mockery. That reminds me to be less sure of my mockeries, especially borrowed ones. Mockery has a place in writing–there would be little satire without it–but it must be informed. In this case mine, though never overt, was also ignorant until now.

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I made a few revisions to this piece after posting it.