• One short sleep past…

    Apropos of nothing, other than a reality we all face:

    Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
    Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
    For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
    Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
    From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
    Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
    And soonest our best men with thee do go,
    Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
    Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
    And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
    And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
    And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
    One short sleep past, we wake eternally
    And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

    —John Donne

  • Zach Rocheleau shared his experience in college learning about marriage and family earlier this month, and I’m excerpting some of that here. It captures so much of the spirit that I saw at work in the life of my grandparents, especially, but also so many of the older pre-Baby Boomer marriages that were still active and alive when I was a child and observed them up close:

    In college, I took one of my favorite classes of all time and it was called Creation & Grace. My professor was Dr. Riordan. He was a short man his mid 70’s. His voice was soft but he could speak with so much passion. I could listen to him for days. It was peaceful but yet engaging and inspiring.

    The purpose of the class was to show how philosophy and faith can come together to truly give us the ability to see the world in its purest form. To help us see how beautiful this world is and how lucky we are that it was created for us.

    One day in class, the topic of marriage and raising a family came up. He explained that there are two ways you can see your wife. He needed to explain the philosophy first to help us understand. He articulated that you have two options when you see something. You can either see it as a means to an end, which is the fact that this thing could lead you to a desired result. Or you can see it as an end in itself, which is that you see the thing as the end goal. He asked the class if we understood and we all agreed.

    He then moved back to the topic of marriage and raising a family. He explained that in order to have a lasting and beautiful marriage, you must see your wife as an end in herself rather than a means to an end.

    He then went into explaining what this truly means and this is where my life forever changed. My priorities changed. How I saw women changed forever. I fell in love with my future wife right then.

    He talked about his love for his wife of 53 years and what it truly meant for her to be the end in herself. He explained that she was his best friend. His teammate for life. Her contagious personality could light up a room. Her cute little cackle when she laughed. How she would blush even after the smallest complement. How she loved more than anything when he would wink at her from across the room. How he would still catch himself standing in awe of her even after 53 years of marriage. He explained that he just wanted her. He didn’t want anything she could do for him. He just loved her unconditionally. He only wanted her.

    Then he explained the significance of this. He explained that love is not a means to an end. Love is unconditional. Love is loving someone as an end in themselves. He further explained that a lot of the guys nowadays see women as a means to an end not an end in themselves. Treating them like a physical object that can be replaced rather than something that is truly special and one of a kind. And I got sick to my stomach when he said that because I knew it was true and I was guilty of this.

    I’ll never forget that class. I remember before I graduated college, I told Dr. Riordan this exact story and he had tears in his eyes. He was such a kind man and I knew his love for his wife was pure. He then said to me, “Zach, this principle does not only apply to your wife. I want, even if you do not think the young lady with ever be your wife, to treat her like she will be your future wife. He said better yet, like she is your future daughter.”

  • Puritan capitalism

    Dr. David L. Schindler reviews Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism:

    Probably the most common reading of Max Weber’s argument in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is that capitalism appeared for the first time with English Puritans (Calvinists) of the seventeenth century, as though the “impulse to acquisition, pursuit of gain, of money” began decisively at this time or with this people (17). Weber is sardonic in his dismissal of such a reading. The impulse to acquisition, he says, “has existed among waiters, physicians, coachmen, artists, prostitutes, dishonest officials, soldiers, nobles, crusaders, gamblers and beggars. One may say that it has been common to all sorts and conditions of men at all times and in all countries of the earth, wherever the objective possibility of it is or has been given” (17). He insists that “[i]t should be taught in the kindergarten of cultural history that this naïve idea of capitalism must be given up once and for all. Unlimited greed for gain is not in the least identical with capitalism, and is still less its spirit” (17). Weber’s argument is centered rather on a more basic and interesting phenomenon: what he terms the “disenchantment” (die Entzauberung, or Rationalisierung, “rationalization”) of life and work in Puritan theology.

    In summary, we may say that Puritanism’s peculiar God-centeredness, according to Weber, conceived God’s transcendence “negatively”: God was pervasively “present” in the world only through the influence of his “absence.” The human being never participates intrinsically in God’s goodness. On the contrary, man remains a subject to whom that goodness must be imputed, incomprehensively and from outside. Likewise the things of the world are drained of all intrinsic worth.

    Puritan “disenchantment” thus involves an utterly utilitarian view of the world. Man’s purpose in the world is to be ever-active in “rationalizing” things in maiorem Dei gloriam. But the point is that this “rationalizing” process is conceived in a thoroughly instrumentalized fashion. Nothing in the cosmos really bears value—or salvific value in relation to God—save as “rationalized” via the power of human activity. …

    In this light, “the most urgent task” for the Puritan becomes “the destruction of spontaneous, impulsive enjoyment”—as a necessary condition for bringing “order into . . . conduct” (119). “Not leisure and enjoyment, but only activity serves to increase the glory of God” (157‒58). Restlessness becomes a sign of God’s salvific action. Inactive contemplation is valueless, or even directly reprehensible insofar as it detracts from the orderly demands of daily work. What gives glory to God, in a word, is the incessantly active performance of his will in one’s “worldly calling” (157‒58). …

    It is important to see that the Puritan ethos as described by Weber persists in America even when, over time, the strength of Puritan piety wanes.[2] Pious Americans and secularized Americans continue to occupy largely the same cultural space, insofar as they both presume a distant God who is most effectively present in and to the world in his “absence,” and insofar as they (consequently) approach the things of the world most basically as apt for rationalization—if not any longer as a sign (for the religiously inclined) of God’s imputed favor, then in the interest of enhancing comfort and advancing the (secular) human estate.[3] What is crucial to see is the link Weber’s book defends (here set forth in terms of Puritanism and America) between the ethos of a culture and its (acknowledged or unacknowledged) assumptions regarding God and the orders of creation and civilization.[4] This link remains even when one is unaware of these assumptions.

    Weber’s argument, then, implies not only that those in America who faithfully follow Puritan theology embody this ethos, but that any who live in America are inevitably shaped by this ethos, even if unconsciously. They tend to presuppose a God who is distant from the world, or acts ungenerously (or not at all) in relation to the world, such that the world is no longer symbolic of God, bearing inherent truth, goodness, and beauty as given (qua being). Human freedom becomes a simple exercise of choice, absent of any naturally ordered love of God. Knowledge becomes a matter properly of power over things and their meaning, as distinct from first “seeing” or experiencing things as they are (contemplation). The world becomes neutral (“dumb”) stuff awaiting controlled manipulation (experiment). Leisure is identified with idleness and enjoyment of external-bodily pleasure. Work is reduced to ever-more efficient activity for the purpose of producing the ever-greater wealth that enables idle comfort. Deepening the truth, goodness, and beauty of things for their own sake and as symbols of the good God, and thus simultaneously toward liturgical service, is no longer the proper concern of civilized public—economic, political, academic—order.

    Weber’s argument in the end implies that no religion has more thoroughly instrumentalized the world and work and leisure than has Puritanism.

    I’m instantly skeptical when I hear someone cast “capitalism” in a negative light, because behind the slight air of scorn that almost always accompanies the comment is some specific complaint or reading-into of a social/moral/cultural activity that the person has a problem with and assigns to “capitalism” broadly, rather than the actor specifically. Dr. Schindler sheds light for me on one of the legitimate problems of our age—this cultural “breathing in” of the Puritan mentality of justification through activity/work—that makes it difficult to even speak about “capitalism” without meaning a sort of capitalism wherein no one is ever at peace.

    Catholics have lots of work to do if we’re ever to reform a cultural sense of capitalism that is closer to what Michael Novak so clearly recognized it is, at its core: an uplifting and ennobling force, so long as it allowed for the creative and virtuous channeling of human energies in a way that recognizes human dignity.

  • Little radio memory

    I took this short little video in July 2012 in State College, when I was visiting I think over Arts Fest—a bit of The LION 90.7fm, Penn State’s student radio station. I came across it recently when going through some files, and it brought me back to that moment I filmed it, as rain spattered down a bit, cutting through thick summer air and slowing the world a bit.

    It brought me to think a bit about what made The LION 90.7fm so attractive and compelling to me as a freshman at Penn State. It was the sound of a student-led, public broadcasting station that was able to speak freely, broadcast freely, and play whatever it felt was right. It was a station that didn’t want anything from its listener; indifferent in the good sense, of being removed from the concerns of the wider commercial market. It clearly empowered the human voice, and seemed to give it a confidence and force beyond what its generally youthful broadcasters had really earned, and consequently had a verve to it that made it a joy to listen to.

    I remember tuning in occasionally even while in high school, feeling like I was getting to know bits and pieces of Penn State and State College months before I’d really be there in earnest. And now I return to it from time to time, to hear of a Penn State and town that seems slightly different from the one I remember, but that retains that essential element of compelling indifference.

  • Literate, engaged citizens

    I’m sharing one more excerpt from Archbishop Charles J. Chaput’s “Strangers in a Strange Land:

    A friend of mine is a well-known economist at a leading American university. He’s also the gatekeeper for an elite doctoral program in his field. Asked once what he valued most in candidates for his program, he said, “an undergraduate degree in Classics.” Homer and Virgil, of course, have very little to do with things like debt-deflation theory. But my friend’s reasoning is, in fact, quite shrewd.

    Since economics is a human (i.e., social) science, its practitioners should first know how to be actual human beings before learning their specialized skills. A formation in the classics or any of the other humanities is an immersion in beauty and knowledge. It has no utility other than enlarging the soul. But that achievement—the ennobling of a soul, the enlarging of the human spirit to revere the heritage of human excellence and to love things outside itself—is something no technical skill can accomplish.

    As Leo Strauss once wrote, “liberal education is concerned with the souls of men, and therefore has little or no use for machines … [it] consists in learning to listen to still and small voices and therefore in becoming deaf to loudspeakers.”18 A liberal education—a balanced experience of the humanities, art, music, mathematics, and the natural sciences—is designed to form a mature “liberal” adult; liberal in the original sense, meaning free as opposed to slave. Thus for Strauss, “liberal education is the counter-poison … to the corroding effects of mass culture, to its inherent tendency to produce nothing” but specialists without vision or heart.

    Scholars like Anthony Esolen, Allan Bloom, Neil Postman, Matthew Crawford, and Alasdair MacIntyre, each in his own way and for different reasons, have all said similar things. For all of them, the point of a truly good education, from pre-K to graduate school, is to form students to think and act as fully rounded, mature, and engaged human beings. In other words, as adult persons of character.

    As Matthew Crawford puts it, “Education requires a certain capacity for asceticism, but more fundamentally it is erotic. Only beautiful things lead us out [of our addictive self-focus] to join the world beyond our heads.”20 But the dilemma of postmodern life is that we can’t agree on what a fully rounded, mature “human being” is—or should be. The fragmentation in American culture runs too deep. Recent battles over imposing gender ideology in school curricula and rewriting and politicizing civics and American history textbooks simply prove the point. So does the “progressive” intellectual conformism in so many of our university faculties.

    Meanwhile, as American student skills decline in global comparisons, more and more stress is placed on developing STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) competence at earlier student ages. There’s nothing wrong with this in principle. Technical skills are an important part of modern life. But as we’ve already seen, American trust in the promise of technology is robust and naive to the point of being a character flaw. And a real education involves more profound life lessons than training workers and managers to be cogs in an advanced economy.

    We tend to forget that “everything that human beings are doing to make it easier to operate computer networks is at the same time, but for different reasons, making it easier for computer networks to operate human beings.” We also tend to forget that our political system, including its liberties, requires a particular kind of literate, engaged citizen—a kind that predates the computer keyboard.

  • True progress v. despair

    I’m sharing two more excerpts from Archbishop Charles J. Chaput’s “Strangers in a Strange Land. This focuses on the idea of progress, and on Christianity’s ability to “play with death” thanks to Jesus Christ:

    Americans talk about progress with an odd kind of reverence. Progress is the unstoppable force pushing human affairs forward. And it’s a religion with a simple premise: Except for the random detour, civilization instinctively changes for the better. And it’s up to us to get on board or get out of the way; to be part of the change or to get run over by history if we try to obstruct it. Hence we Catholics are routinely warned that we’re on the wrong side of history.

    This idea of progress does have its appeal. As the economist Sidney Pollard put it: “The world today believes in progress because the only alternative to the belief in progress would be total despair.” We might go a step further: Clinging to a belief in progress is actually a product of despair, generously seasoned by sloth. History is cruel, social change is difficult, and a relationship with God involves a lot of unpleasant truth-telling—especially about ourselves. Better to just shift the burden of living in a flawed world at an imperfect time onto some positive force that will bring about the change we want “some” day.

    It’s a heartwarming delusion. But that’s all it is: a delusion. A brief glance at the twentieth century destroys the myth. In just a few decades, “progressive” regimes and ideas produced two savage world wars, multiple murder ideologies, and the highest body count in history. And yet, as Christopher Lasch noted, people still cling to the religion of progress long after the evidence wrecks their dream.

    The cult of progress is the child not only of despair, but also of presumption. It’s a kind of Pelagianism, the early Christian heresy that presumed human beings could attain salvation by their own efforts without the constant help of grace. Hence the philosopher Hans Blumenberg says that what separates the progressive idea of history from the Christian one is “the assertion that the principle of historical change comes from within history and not from on high, and that man can achieve a better life ‘by the exertion of his own powers’ instead of counting on divine grace.”

    While we can and should work for social improvement—an obviously worthy goal—we’re too riddled with sin to ever build paradise on earth. As Benedict XVI put it, authentic progress doesn’t come automatically. In every age, human freedom must be weaned over to the good.23 And because our freedom can be used for good or evil, progress is always ambiguous:

    “Without doubt, it offers new possibilities for good, but it also opens up appalling possibilities for evil—possibilities that formerly did not exist. We have all witnessed the way in which progress, in the wrong hands, can become and has indeed become a terrifying progress in evil. If technical progress is not matched by corresponding progress in man’s ethical formation, in man’s inner growth (see Eph 3:16 and 2 Cor 4:16), then it is not progress at all, but a threat for man and for the world.”

    Ironically, it’s the religious subtext of progress that makes it so attractive. Again, as Friedrich Nietzsche and many others observed, progress is a kind of Christianity without Jesus and all the awkward baggage that he brings. The Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr saw this years ago when he wrote that “the idea of progress is possible only upon the ground of a Christian culture. It is a secularized version of Biblical apocalypse and of the Hebraic sense of a meaningful history, in contrast to the meaningless history of the Greeks.”

    This contrast is crucial. Ancient peoples like the Greeks and Babylonians had a far darker view of history than Christians do. They saw humanity as controlled by fate, whose dictates could not be resisted. Greeks and Romans also had little hope of heaven. Many ancients believed that at death, human life ended. Hence the emperor Hadrian, one of Rome’s most cultivated and humane rulers, would write of his soul: “Poor ghost, my body’s friend and guest / Erewhile, thou leav’st thy home; / To what uncertain place of rest / A wanderer dost thou roam? / Pale, cold, and naked, henceforth to forgo / Thy jests among the sullen shades below.”

    One of Christianity’s key contributions to Western civilization was to give men and women a sense of freedom from the whims of fate, a hope for life after death because of the victory of Jesus Christ. And over the centuries, that confidence in life beyond the grave has taken vivid form in the here and now.


    THE CASTEL SANT’ANGELO IN Rome, the old papal fortress near the Vatican, is also the tomb of Hadrian. Visitors can find Hadrian’s poem about his soul on the wall. But walking eastward in Rome, the pilgrim will come to a very different meditation on death. The Capuchin Franciscans have an ordinary-looking church on the Via Veneto. But its crypt contains a series of rooms decorated with human bones—thousands of them.

    The ceilings look like those of a baroque palace, except that they’re made of vertebrae. There’s a clock built of arm and finger bones. Skulls and femurs create decorative arches and columns. Through unbelieving eyes, it can easily seem ghoulish. It’s certainly a sobering encounter with our mortality. But it’s also very Franciscan. It takes death, that thing we fear most, and literally plays with it. And that couldn’t happen without a firm faith that Jesus Christ had crushed death, turning it from our ancient foe into what Saint Francis called “Sister Death,” the gateway to eternal life with God. The Capuchin bone crypt is uniquely Christian because beneath its somber appearance, it offers—for those who believe—a firm and joyful hope about what we find in Christ.

    The Christian alternative to the cult of progress is not only hope, but the idea of providence. Providence is the understanding that God has a plan for each of our lives and for the whole world, and that for each of us, his plan is good. As Paul writes in Romans 8:28, “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.” Whereas progress might claim that history has an inevitable arc, faith in providence has confidence that the Lord of history will one day make all things right. …

    Without a final vindication of right and wrong—and without a just judge to do the vindicating—we would live in a world where good and evil have no meaning.

    As Christians, we believe that Jesus Christ is that just judge. He’s not only the guide of history, but its focal point.

  • I’m sharing three more excerpts from Archbishop Charles J. Chaput’s “Strangers in a Strange Land. I was struck by his reflection on the Beatitudes in general, but particularly with this reflection on what it means to the “poor in spirit”:

    It’s worth pausing to reflect on each of the Beatitudes. And with the moral theologian Servais Pinckaers, O.P., as our guide, we can start to think about how we might live them in our own lives. So let’s begin.

    Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

    The first Beatitude reminds us of one of the strongest themes of Scripture: God’s love for the poor, the weak, and the vulnerable. We see this in the Old Covenant, in which God instructs the people of Israel to care for the poor and the alien in their midst. He tells the Israelites not to harvest every speck of grain in their fields, but to leave some for the poor and the stranger who have no food of their own (Lev 19:9–10). He also commands them to set aside every fiftieth year as a Jubilee. In that year property that was bought or sold must be returned to its original owners (Lev 25:8–28).

    Through the prophets God rebukes those who violate the spirit of these commands: “Therefore because you trample upon the poor and take from him exactions of wheat, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not dwell in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine. For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins—you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and turn aside the needy in the gate” (Amos 5:11–12).

    Later Jesus says that, in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, he is the one on whom the Spirit of the Lord rests, the one whom the Lord has anointed to preach good news to the poor (Lk 4:16–21).19 In our own time we tend to distinguish between spiritual and material poverty. But in the Bible, these concepts are tightly linked. The rich have wealth, but they become overly proud and ignore or oppress others. They use their money to buy influence and exploit the needy. They forget their dependence on God. The poor man, by contrast, is always reminded of his dependence. He will be humble and trust in the Lord.

    We see this clearly in Jesus’ parable of Lazarus and the rich man. The rich man had elegant clothes and ate sumptuously. But he ignored Lazarus, who sat right at his gate, covered in sores that the dogs licked. Every time he entered or left his house the rich man would pass Lazarus, yet he did nothing to ease his needs. When the rich man died, he ended up in Hades. Now he suffered, while Lazarus sat in the bosom of Abraham.

    The story underscores a simple fact: If we don’t love the poor, we will go to hell. If we let our possessions blind us to our dependence on God, we will go to hell. If we let food and clothes and all the other distractions of modern life keep us from seeing the needs of our neighbors, we will go to hell.

    We might assume that Scripture condemns the wealthy. But that’s not the case. As the early Church Fathers noted, the Lazarus parable is really a tale of two rich men: an unnamed callous one, and the patriarch Abraham. Abraham was a rich man who never forgot his dependence on God. Whereas the wealthy sinner let Lazarus wallow in squalor, Abraham welcomed the three strangers in the Old Testament who visited him, and he fed them with rich food. Abraham was generous and shared his abundance, always remembering that everything he owned was a gift from God. The lesson is obvious: Possession is really about service. When it’s not, we become slaves to our goods instead of living in a culture of interior freedom.

    Poverty comes in many forms, and Father Pinckaers names some that are familiar: illness, loneliness, age, failure, ignorance, and sin. All of these come back to the poverty at the heart of our very being: We didn’t create ourselves, and someday everything we have will be taken away by death. Even our body will turn to dust. Our poverty, in turn, puts us at a crossroads. We can either rebel against God, or let ourselves be shaped by suffering and become more open to God and others.

    For believers, then, the poverty we experience purifies us. It keeps us from getting weighed down by excess baggage on the road to heaven. The first Beatitude is addressed to all of us.22 It asks us how we will respond to the blessings and sufferings of life. Even if we don’t embrace the complete poverty of a Dorothy Day, the principle of her life still speaks to us. In giving away our treasure and our very selves, we find life and freedom. Only if our hearts are open can we receive the kingdom of heaven, which is the richest gift of all.

    “If we don’t love the poor, we will go to hell. If we let our possessions blind us to our dependence on God, we will go to hell. If we let food and clothes and all the other distractions of modern life keep us from seeing the needs of our neighbors, we will go to hell.” A frightening, but necessary, call for perpetual conversion of heart that hits me in a deep way.

  • Thanksgiving

    Happy Thanksgiving. While Thanksgiving certainly predates the founding of the United States and stretches back to the initial settlements in North America, it’s notable that the first “National Thanksgiving” was held December 18, 1777. Sheilah Vance writes:

    On December 18, 1777, General George Washington’s army celebrated the first national Thanksgiving in Gulph Mills and on Rebel Hill. The celebration caused a one day delay in the army’s march to Valley Forge, which General Washington had decided a day earlier, was to be where the army would make its winter quarters.

    The purpose of the Thanksgiving, according to the November 1, 1777 proclamation of the Continental Congress, was for “Solemn Thanksgiving and Praise” and “to inspire our Commanders both by Land and Sea, and all under them, with that Wisdom and Fortitude which may render them fit Instruments, under the Providence of Almighty GOD, to secure for these United States the greatest of all human blessings, INDEPENDENCE and PEACE…”

    Reverend Israel Evans, chaplin to General Poor’s New Hampshire brigade, preached at least one of the Thanksgiving sermons. The text of his sermon was printed by Lancaster, Pa. printer, Francis Bailey, who is credited with being the first printer to name, in print, Gen. Washington as “the Father of His Country.” General Washington received a copy of this Thanksgiving sermon on March 12, 1778.


    First National Thanksgiving Celebrated by Washington’s Army

    Here at “The Gulph” on Thursday, December 18, 1777 Washington’s Army delayed their march into Valley Forge by one day to celebrate the first Thanksgiving of the United States proclaimed by the Continental Congress with Chaplains performing the divine service. This Thanksgiving in spite of suffering the day before the march into Valley Forge showed the reverence and character that was forging the soul of a nation.


  • New York zoning codes

    Forty percent of Manhattan could not be built today:

    New York City’s zoning code turns 100 this year. That may not sound like cause for celebration — except maybe for land-use lawyers and Robert Moses aficionados. Yet for almost every New Yorker, the zoning code plays an outsize role in daily life, shaping virtually every inch of the city.

    The bays and cliffs of the Empire State Building come from zoning, as do the arcades and plazas of Park Avenue. The code gave us Zuccotti Park and Billionaire’s Row, the quietude of Greenwich Village and the bustle of the High Line, the glass towers now lining the formerly industrial waterfront and the portion of subsidized apartments that fill them.

    New York’s zoning code was the first in the country, meant to promote a healthier city, which was then filling with filthy tenements and office towers. Since it was approved in 1916, the ever-evolving, byzantine code has changed many times to suit the needs of a swollen metropolis. …

    Whole swaths of the city defy current zoning rules. In Manhattan alone, roughly two out of every five buildings are taller, bulkier, bigger or more crowded than current zoning allows, according to data compiled by Stephen Smith and Sandip Trivedi. They run Quantierra, a real estate firm that uses data to look for investment opportunities.

    Mr. Smith and Mr. Trivedi evaluated public records on more than 43,000 buildings and discovered that about 17,000 of them, or 40 percent, do not conform to at least one part of the current zoning code. The reasons are varied. Some of the buildings have too much residential area, too much commercial space, too many dwelling units or too few parking spaces; some are simply too tall. These are buildings that could not be built today.

    It is important to note that these estimates rely on public records that can be imperfect. Still, while the data may at times be imprecise, it allows for an insightful view of zoning in New York.

    Many buildings in distinctive Manhattan neighborhoods like Chinatown, the Upper East Side and Washington Heights could not be erected now: Properties in those areas tend to cover too much of their lots (Washington Heights), have too much commercial space (Chinatown) or rise too high (the Upper East Side). Areas like Chelsea, Midtown and East Harlem, on the other hand, would look much as they do already.

    “Look at the beautiful New York City neighborhoods we could never build again,” Mr. Smith said. “It’s ridiculous that we have these hundred-year-old buildings that everyone loves, and none of them ‘should’ be the way they are.”

    As the zoning code enters its second century, it is worth considering the ways it has shaped the city; whether and where it is still working; and how it might be altered so the city can continue to grow without obliterating everything New Yorkers love about it. …

    Nearly three-quarters of the existing square footage in Manhattan was built between the 1900s and 1930s, according to an analysis done by KPF, an architecture firm based in New York. In a way, the zoning code helps to preserve such architectural diversity. The laws have gotten more restrictive over time, giving an edge to properties built in earlier eras.

    Astounding to realize that the vast majority of Manhattan’s square footage came into being in thirty years. Even stranger to realize how much of what’s beloved is impossible to replicate today, in an allegedly more enlightened time. If we want greater affordability, a liberalization of the codes to achieve something between the codes of the present and the tenement-friendly practices of the past seems reasonable.

  • Silent reading

    Thu-Huong Ha writes:

    People think of reading as the introvert’s hobby: A quiet activity for a person who likes quiet, save for the voices in their head. But in the 5,000 or so years humans have been writing, reading as we conceive it, an asocial solo activity with a book, is a relatively new form of leisure.

    For centuries, Europeans who could read did so aloud. The ancient Greeks read their texts aloud. So did the monks of Europe’s dark ages. But by the 17th century, reading society in Europe had changed drastically. Text technologies, like moveable type, and the rise of vernacular writing helped usher in the practice we cherish today: taking in words without saying them aloud, letting them build a world in our heads.

    Among scholars, there is a surprisingly fierce debate around when European society transitioned from mostly reading aloud to mostly reading silently…

    “The default assumption in the classic period, if you were reading around other people, you’d read aloud and share it,” says Smith. “For us, the default is we’ll read silently and keep it to ourselves.”

    At some point that expectation shifted. As late as the 1700s, historian Robert Darnton writes, “For the common people in early modern Europe, reading was a social activity. It took place in workshops, barns, and taverns. It was almost always oral but not necessarily edifying.” …

    There isn’t much consensus between historians on why people started reading silently. Saenger hypothesizes that a shift in the way words were laid out a page facilitated the change. Latin words once ran all together, makingithardtoparsethem. Saenger argues that Irish monks, translating Latin in the seventh century, added spaces between words to help them understand the language better. This key design change, he argues, facilitated the rise in silent reading.

    M. B. Parkes, in his 1992 book, Pause and Effect: Punctuation in the West, argues something similar. He writes that a “grammar of legibility”—the visual changes made to texts, like punctuation and word spaces—changed the way we read. This early book technology was premised on the idea that the scribes, the people writing, didn’t know who their readers would be, or how fluent they might be in reading Latin, and so had to find a standardized way of telling them how to read: Pause here; these are two separate words; this is a long “a.”

    This scholarship applies for the most part to the Latin-based writing and reading of Europe. In other major reading cultures of the world like Chinese, whose script doesn’t have spaces between words, and whose literature depends heavily on prosody, silent reading may have developed differently.