Archive for January, 2019

Long and Hard

January 30, 2019

Oh boy,  is this a good essay. First published in 2010 it is still clean and crisp as ever. Read and enjoy.

 

Start with a few titles: Albert Einstein’s The Meaning of Relativity, Paul Samuelson’s Foundations of Economic Analysis, Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition, Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s Beyond the Melting Pot, John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory. Have you read all these?    How about this group? Donald Mackenzie’s An Engine, Not a Camera: How Financial Models Shape Markets, John Seeley Brown and Paul Duguid’s The Social Life of Information, Henry Petroski’s Success Through Failure: The Paradox of Design, James R. Beniger’s The Control Revolution: Technological and Economic Origins of the Information Society. Okay, then these: Noam Chomsky’s Language and Mind, Walter Jackson Bate’s Criticism: The Major Texts, Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren’s Modern Rhetoric, Lewis A. Coser’s Masters of Sociological Thought, and Peter Brown’s The World of Late Antiquity…

So, raise your hands, who’s read them all? Seventy-five percent? Fifty percent? Come on, anybody read one? Good, thank you. Me too—but I read it a long time ago, and well, I didn’t do it justice, which is seems fitting because I’m talking about the Rawls’ book. Lately, I’ve fingered it a few times in the book store—did you know there’re actually two editions, the one published in 1971 and a later edition—so it’s daunting, a long hard read and not immediately relevant to anything I’m doing right now, and, you know, do you have to read both volumes? Did John change his mind on some key points? Turns out, reading Rawls is just a start; as a citizen I should be reading at least some if not all of the above. Democracy demands it.

A book matches perfectly the ideal of reflection. The tougher the text, the more reflective we must be in absorbing it. This suggests the importance of reading books that are difficult. Long books. Hard books. Books with which we have to struggle. The hard work of serious reading mirrors the hard work of serious governing—and, in a democracy, governing is a responsibility all citizens share. And if we are willing to work our way through difficult texts, we are far more likely to be willing to work our way through our opponents’ difficult ideas. An important lesson of serious reading is that ideas need not be correct to be important.

This quote comes from Stephen Carter and the above list of books comes from Peter J. Dougherty and, to be fair, his reading list is only suggested reading. You can choose your own hard book to take to the beach this summer—just so long as it’s hard and it’s a book.

Kierkegaard has a passage somewhere in the Concluding Unscientific Postscript (no, I’m not going to try and find it) where he’s sitting in a café smoking a cigar and thinking about his particular place in the world. Everyone is busy explaining things, everyone is making things comprehensible, everyone is making things easy.  What was he to do with himself? He lights a second cigar (Sören, this is not good for you) and thinks that there is danger here: The danger of making things too easy, the danger of making things too readily comprehensible, of eliding past real difficulties and not dealing with the hard, harsh complex reality of things. Perhaps, he thinks, it is necessary to make things difficult again. Make things hard. Like Socrates.

Wallace Stevens ventures a similar point:

The poet does not speak in ruins
Nor stand there making orotund consolations.
He shares the confusions of intelligence.
Giovanni Papini, by your faith, know how
He wishes that all hard poetry were true.

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