Reading defeats narcissism

Kevin Hartnett writes on the effects of art on life:

In the same way that it would be hard to meet Scarlett Johansson and not be distracted by her beauty, it is difficult to read War and Peace and not be preoccupied with its reputation as the greatest novel ever written. …

One way to think about what a work of art does is to imagine the counterfactual—how would my life have been different had I not spent the last three months reading War and Peace?  The answers, I think, tend to group into three categories: The social experiences I had because of the book; the ideas the book incorporated into my life; and the aesthetic moments that were opened to me because of what I was reading. …

Tolstoy’s intellectual agenda in the book was to expose the meagerness of historical accounts of the War of 1812 that tried to reduce the world-remaking conflict to a finite and knowable set of causes.  Instead, Tolstoy wanted to depict the war in all its complexity and contingency, to show that the outcome rested at least as much on the decision of an individual soldier to charge or not as it did on Napoleon’s machinations, and that both the soldiers and the Emperor were controlled equally by forces larger than themselves. …

(One somewhat disquieting effect of reading War and Peace is that the more your own thoughts show up in its pages, the less original your life begins to feel.) …

The night I finished reading about Borodino, it was plainly obvious that I had just read something great.  Yet here I was sitting in a corner of my couch, just the same as I had been an hour before.  I thought about the question with which I opened—what is it that greatness does? An encounter with greatness, I would say, is like a bright light fixed in time, a marker that defines memory and makes it clearer than it otherwise might have been, that we were here.

This gives voice to the power of great literature to combat narcissism and egoism. It’s a path toward humility.

There’s so much value in immersing yourself in the mysterious power that the written word has on the scope, depth, and perspective of our minds.

Little squiggles on paper with a metaphysical power.

Conversion and prayer

Years ago a friend of mine recommended Fr. Thomas Dubay’s Deep Conversion/Deep Prayer. This book was a response “to the call by both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI to help believers and all those interested in spirituality develop a deeper prayer life and union with God.” It’s a satisfying and worthwhile read, especially for any young person. It’s an easy read at little more than 100 pages.

Fr. Dubay hits on themes some of us will have heard before, but manages to offer a fresh and penetrating perspective on how we connect (or fail to connect) to God in our lives. At its heart, Deep Conversion/Deep Prayer issues a call to saintly living—to  experiencing the fullness of God as a trinity of persons. This sounds daunting and strange (and it is) but Fr. Dubay reminds us that we are all called to saintliness.

Deep Conversion/Deep Prayer is filled with passages that call for a highlighter and reflection, but among what I remember as some of the most thoughtful are the following excerpts.

  • Despite the faults of individual members who fail to live up to what they profess, thoughtful people recognize that the only fair way to judge any institution is according to its principles and the example of those who live in accord with them.
  • There are two roots of conflicts in human communities in which people live closely on a daily basis. One is a lack of shared vision regarding the basic principles undergirding our destiny and inter-relationships. … The second root of discord is … egocentrism in its innumerable forms.
  • “C.S. Lewis, speaking of an ordinary family, was on target when he remarked, “There cannot be a common life without a regula [rule]. The alternative to rule is not freedom but the unconstitutional (and often unconscious) tyranny of the most selfish member.”
  • Saint Paul put the matter perfectly twenty centuries ago: “Whether you eat or drink or do anything else, do all for the glory of God. (1 Cor 10:31).
  • A real assent to a proposition includes the intellectual acceptance of it plus the concrete carrying out of it in the nitty-gritty of daily life, that is, making this truth part of one’s personal reality.
  • “To bear anything joyfully, thanking the Father…!” It is easy to see in this one verse how and why the saints are moral miracles: their goodness and beauty far surpass the natural capacities of human nature.
  • [The] Church is affirming that all of her children are called to be saints, profoundly converted to the highest degree of sanctity. No other worldview presents and proclaims so beautiful and lofty an ideal of what man can become — indeed should become.

Practical v. practicable

An important distinction from G.K. Chesterton in his book St. Francis of Assisi:

If we mean by what is practical what is most immediately practicable, we mean merely what is easiest. In that sense St. Francis was very impractical, and his ultimate aims were very unworldly. But if we mean by practicality a preference for prompt effort and energy over doubt or delay, he was very practical indeed.

Even a basic reading of the life of St. Francis makes you appreciate his desire to act; for prompt effort and energy. I think in this way he could be called a patron of our era, even if we’re often unsure what we’re acting to achieve.

Meanwhile, Chesterton’s core point stands even a century later: to be practical shouldn’t mean to be pragmatic. Our organizing principles (whether personal, familial, national, whatever) have to be clear before we can talk about what’s “practical,” because practicality is simply our response to what’s necessary. Often the necessary things are the least practicable, yet seeking to bring about a necessary thing is a damned practical thing to do.

And don’t you love that about Chesterton? He’s so pithy and we’re so longwinded in stating the same things.

Books age, like us

In My 6,128 Favorite Books Joe Queenan writes:

Books as physical objects matter to me, because they evoke the past. A Métro ticket falls out of a book I bought 40 years ago, and I am transported back to the Rue Saint-Jacques on Sept. 12, 1972, where I am waiting for someone named Annie LeCombe. A telephone message from a friend who died too young falls out of a book, and I find myself back in the Chateau Marmont on a balmy September day in 1995. A note I scribbled to myself in “Homage to Catalonia” in 1973 when I was in Granada reminds me to learn Spanish, which I have not yet done, and to go back to Granada.

None of this will work with a Kindle. People who need to possess the physical copy of a book, not merely an electronic version, believe that the objects themselves are sacred. Some people may find this attitude baffling, arguing that books are merely objects that take up space. This is true, but so are Prague and your kids and the Sistine Chapel. Think it through, bozos.

The world is changing, but I am not changing with it. There is no e-reader or Kindle in my future. My philosophy is simple: Certain things are perfect the way they are. The sky, the Pacific Ocean, procreation and the Goldberg Variations all fit this bill, and so do books. Books are sublimely visceral, emotionally evocative objects that constitute a perfect delivery system.

Ben Novak wrote this in an email to me a few years ago:

…just having them evokes the experience of reading or studying them. The pages are yellowing, as I am, but the experience of touching them with my hands and eyes is still vivid. They each bear part of my soul on their pages. Their words etched in ink on fading paper are etched on my fading mind as well.

Retronaut’s slogan? “The past is a foreign country. This is your passport.” Physicals books are a territory all to themselves, and one whose secrets aren’t easy to translate in the context of electronic culture.

Charles Carroll

On the flight to San Francisco last week I started reading American Cicero: The Life of Charles Carroll by Bradley J. Birzer. The life of the Carroll family is facinating to me, not only because Charles was the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence, but also more broadly because of the life he was prepared for by his father, even in the face of a cultural and legal environment that prohibited their participation in the public square:

In 1757, Charles Carroll of Annapolis finally married his common-law wife, Elizabeth Brooke, officially named Charles his son, and declared them both beneficiaries in his will. No record explains fully the reasons for this otherwise devout Roman Catholic to live with a woman for years without making her his legal wife or declaring their son his heir, keeping him a bastard. Almost certainly, Charles Carroll the elder hoped to avoid penalties as detailed—though rarely enforced—by the anti-Catholic statutes of the Province of Maryland. The Maryland Assembly began passing anti-Catholic laws in earnest immediately following a Protestant coup in the province in 1689. Undoing the Act of Toleration of 1649 and its reaffirmation and restoration in 1658 (perhaps the most liberal laws in the colonies), on November 22, 1689, the assembly forbade Roman Catholic participation in military or civil matters. Three years later, the assembly disbarred all Roman Catholics. In 1704, the assembly legally closed the Church of St. Mary’s, the original Catholic chapel in the province. Additionally, over the next decades, the assembly taxed Irish Catholics more heavily than Protestants, demanded antipapist oaths from office holders, and heavily regulated the education of Catholic children.

Toleration ebbs and flows.

The best books

Jennifer Maloney writes on the “rise of phone reading,” where publishers are seeing more readers engaging books through their phones and are actually seeing a decrease in readership from the iPad and Kindle population.

Specifically: 54% of digital buyers are using their phone to read at least some of the time, and 14% are reading primarily through their phones. Tablet reading declined from 44% to 41% of readers, and Kindle reading dropped massively from 50% to 32% of readers.

This is credited more or less to the increase in iPhone 6 and 6 Plus screen sizes, and backed up by this insight:

“The best device to read on is the one you have with you,” said Willem Van Lancker, co-founder and chief product officer of the subscription-book service Oyster. “It requires no planning. My bookshelf at home isn’t any good to me when I’m at the park.”

When I was in London for the Olympics a few years ago I read my first few books on my iPhone 4 on the hour or so ride from my hotel to central London every morning. That screen size was definitely not ideal, but it was great being able to enjoy a book without being stuck carrying it around the rest of the day. I’ve been a phone reader since then, and definitely more so since the iPhone 6 came out.

A corollary to Van Lancker’s insight is that the best annotations are not only “the ones you have with you,” but also the ones you can instantly search.

I think physical libraries in the home have been and will continue to be as much a signaling device as anything else, in the same way a large flat screen mounted in the middle of the home is a signaling device for some families.

Eliminating textbook costs

The recent headline that college textbook prices have increased in price by ~1,000% since 1978 shouldn’t surprise anyone who has been paying attention.

When we talk about access and affordability, textbook prices are a small but nonetheless costly slice of the pie. Unfortunately it seems like the depreciatory effects that so much of the digital economy has don’t necessarily extend to textbooks. The major publishers can now regulate access to books through expiring licenses that eliminate the secondary market for used versions. The solution is Open Educational Resources, which Anthony Panichelli gave a great talk on at Penn State last year:

Essentially the concept is to apply open source principles to the curriculum. I believe this should be a priority for deans within the colleges. The percent of required class materials could be tracked as a key data point to inform academic governance as well as institutional access and affordability. For whatever percent of materials that couldn’t go open source for whatever reason, donors could be solicited to establish endowments to provide a certain percentage of materials into perpetuity, becoming a de facto patron of that course. 

Imagine a university president being able to say, “In the College of Liberal Arts our faculty have created a world class open education curriculum for 97% of their courses, and alumni support has enabled us to cover the costs of the remainder. We believe knowledge should be accessible to everyone, so we’ve made this a public resource to ensure students no longer have to pay a fee to encounter some of civilization’s most important knowledge.”

This is a small and subtle cost when looking at the total cost of an education. But for that reason more than any other it’s one we can separate from the herd of other cost centers and tackle.