Judging the reader by the reader’s reading

A post from basil.CA’s first year:

17 May 02:  I run into educated people who, if they don’t necessarily judge a book by its cover, do something even more stupid:  judge a person by the books he or she reads.  Last year, for instance, I loaned a feminist friend Christina Hoff Somers’ Who Stole Feminism? How Women Have Betrayed Women, thinking, “Hey, she’d probably want to sharpen her positions by reading this controversial book.” Whoops! I hear she’s still out there on Vancouver’s hipper streets slandering me as a priapic blight. 

Recently  I calculated that I have spent about 95,000 hours of my life reading, or almost eleven years — mostly polemical nonfiction of some kind.  The amount of time I’ve spent reading material that I’ve agreed with:  Maybe a year, probably less. The amount of time I’ve enjoyed myself reading:  pretty much always, even those many months in early adulthood reading people like Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh or Rudolph Steiner (fifty or sixty books apiece) (I had friends who were believers, and I determined that reading works by their heros would help prolong our conversations); lately I’ve devoted myself to studying the history of Palestinian and Israeli propaganda — what’s to agree with there, when certainty itself is the blight?

For the last ten years, publications put out by the International Communist League have always been lying around on one of my reading tables. My favourites:  The Sparticist and Women and Revolution, which I often used in my “Bill of Rights” classes at Stanford University.  Each article ends with a call for international socialist revolution guided by the principles of Leon Trotsky; what I call “placard rhetoric” is positioned everywhere:  A recent piece entitled “Down with the Anti-Immigrant Witchhunt” concludes:  “Mobilize Multiracial Union Power in a Mass Labor-Centered Protest! Defend Immigrants, Blacks, Labor Targeted by anti-Terrorist Laws!” 

These obsolescent stylistic devices aside, there are a lot of great political pointers even for those with no Marxist sympathies at all.  These Trotskyites helped me win more than one debate. I once torpedoed a dear buddy during a conversation about the Dalai Lama, seeing how far I could go as temporary Sparticist, arguing that China was liberating Tibet from the shackles of a theocratic society that had exploited and even enslaved women.  As the afternoon wore on, I expanded my onslaught, supporting every decision made by the Central Committee of the Communist Party over the past twenty years.  This bit of contention between us was artificial, true, but we went at it with great energy and seriousness. Against a finer mind,  I won that argument.  My buddy told me awhile ago that he hasn’t engaged in adversarial political discussion since, though I have indeed tried to bait him.

Canadian Thanksgiving

It has been a beautiful day meeting up with friends I have loved for many years. I am thankful and lucky.

Happy vibes to everyone!

On Poetry


My friend Jonathan Mayhew has been on a tear of late, publishing a series of manifestos on poetry in his wonderful blog, Stupid Motivational Tricks. Some snippets (but read the whole thing):

Manifesto (1)

Nobody knows what poetry is for. I think it is for something of great importance; that it is not trivial. …      It follows that the reading of poetry is a spiritual exercise. For me, what poetry is about is the experience of awe. I only really care about poetry, or music, or art, that offers this sense of wonder about being alive in the first place. If you’ve never felt this reading a poem then you need to read someone else’s blog and leave me alone. …     There are poets who write poems, and have a decent, acceptable, style, but don’t seem connected at all to anything related to the awesomeness of poetry. There are critics who make nice arguments about which poetry belongs in which category. I have done that myself. A lot of this has nothing to do with poetry and can be safely ignored.

Another Manifesto (2)

There is a puzzling dichotomy in twentieth century poetics. Let us call it the division between aesthetics and the anti-aesthetic. It manifests itself in the debate between art itself (on the one hand) and socio-political uses of art. …     Both sides of the debate are actually in complete agreement with each other, deploying the exact same dichotomy without questioning it. …     So the puzzle is that this dichotomy would have not been comprehensible 100 years earlier. If you asked Shelley about this, he would not have understood what you meant. Or Milton or Spenser. The terms were not yet in opposition; the debate was not framed in that way in the least.

Manifesto 3

Reading poetry is a ruminative activity. Instead of being absorbed for hours in the reading of a continuous narrative, you read very short texts over and over again and then think about them for a long time. To read (really read) vast quantities of poetry is guaranteed to make you somewhat insane, since it invites solitary rumination. …     I am now the only poetry specialist in my department, so the effects of isolation are even greater.

Composition (Manifesto 4)

If you are a scholar of poetry, then you know how to pay close attention to every word and every space. You have, then, a certain prose responsibility to poetry. You must write well and accurately. You don’t have to be a poet, but pretty close. Everything I regret in my own work is the result of failure to live up to this ideal.

Manifesto 5 (viva voce)

Research is attested to in writing. Yet teaching is quintessentially oral. The living presence of the voice is what matters. …    I found myself yesterday in the engineering building, a third of a mile from my office, about to teach a class but without a copy of the novel we were reading. I still did fine, even referring to specific words and passages. Essentially I was teaching naked, though clothed in suit and tie. …You should be able to teach *viva voce*. If you need specific formats for information, such as tables of statistics, in your field, that’s fine. In poetry we depend on the written text too, and typographical details of the text can be extremely significant. But you shouldn’t have to look at notes to be able to teach something that you know well.

cross-posted from NoContest.CA

Shared Accommodations




In the mini-park on Bute near Robson

Get yours while supplies last …


Engineering Communication: A Practical Guide to Workplace Communication for Engineers (2nd ed.), by David Ingre and yours truly.

“Recess Consultants”

Make your stomach drop: Read this blog post by Clarissa.

Photogrammar: An historical treasure trove

"Buffalo, New York. Swingshift workers on the sidelines at the weekly swingshift dance held at the Main-Utica ballroom."

“Buffalo, New York. Swingshift workers on the sidelines at the weekly swingshift dance held at the Main-Utica ballroom.”

The above photograph, shot in April 1943 by Marjorie Collins, is part of a delightful & important project in which more than 100,000 images – taken from 1935-1944 by photographers working the Farm Security Administration / Office of War Information – have been made available online. The website has an amazing interactive map that allows you to search by place *and* time. Read more about the largest photographic project every sponsored by the USA federal government.

I’m charmed by the possibility that some of the young adults in these Buffalo, NY photos became the grandparents of my running, writing, and drinking buddies decades later.

[Note to my colleagues in academia and publishing: According to the Library of Congress, “Most photographs in this collection are considered to be in the public domain; however, labels on a few images indicate that they may be restricted. Privacy and publicity rights may also apply.”]

h/t LLBM


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